Sunday, March 8, 2009

Obama to Lift Embryonic Stem Cell Funding Ban

This Monday, President Obama will lift the nearly 8-year-old ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

It's about time. He should have done this on the afternoon he was inaugurated.

Of course, he's had a few other problems to deal with, such as The Great Recession, two wars, and trying to decide what kind of puppy to get, but let's face it, I have a vested interest here.

Quite simply, stem cell therapy offers my best, and, quite possibly, last hope at beating back this fracking disease. I don't expect that stem cells will ever cure MS (but then again who the hell knows, since no one knows what causes MS, so whatever it is, maybe stem cells will cure it), but they very likely will help repair some of the havoc wrought by the disease on MS damaged nervous systems, which for now is good enough for me.

I realize many people are morally opposed to embryonic stem cell research because they believe the destruction of a human embryo is tantamount to the taking of a human life. Quite frankly, if the embryos were five-month-old fetuses, I might agree with them. But the embryos in question here are zygotes, clumps of at most a few dozen cells. In order to be useful for stem cell research, these cells cannot have differentiated into specific types of tissue, such as bone, cardiac, skin, or nerve. In other words, these zygotes bear as much commonality to a human being as a clump of iron ore has to the Golden Gate Bridge.

The "embryos" in question are smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Most of them are the byproducts of in vitro fertilization, and would literally be thrown away if they weren't used for research. Not using them to advance the cause of medicine and help put an end to scores of horrendous maladies would seem to me to be the greater sin, if sin is the question here.

Furthermore, in an age where cloning has become an everyday reality, any living cell holds within it the potential of becoming a fully formed life. Every time I scratch myself or pick my nose, I'm destroying thousands of such cells. Should those acts be prohibited as well?

Adult stem cell research also holds much promise, as is endlessly pointed out by embryonic stem cell foes. Most serious research scientists, though, say that embryonic stem cells hold by far the greater potential to do good. Many of the much heralded advances in adult stem cell research involve perfecting ways to get adult stem cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. If the same amount of time, money, and sweat equity had been spent researching the use of embryonic stem cells in the USA during the last eight years, rather than on trying to get adult cells to act like embryonic ones, we would be far further along the road of actually using the cells in a clinical setting.There are myriad problems yet to be overcome in using embryonic stem cells, but all we've so far succeeded in doing is wasting the better part of a decade in learning how to solve these problems.

So get to signing whatever it is you need to sign, Mr. Obama. Time's a wasting, as are my nerve cells and my ability to move my muscles. This isn't an exercise in theoretical morality. There are people dying out here, so let's stop fucking around and just get on with it.


  1. GREAT commentary. Right on the money. Thank you.

  2. Even if President Obama chose not to lift the 8-year old ban on federal funding, funding embryonic stem cell (ESC) research in the private sector never stopped and with no cries for the halting of funding ESC research any time soon.

    I also hope a cure is found for MS; Like you, I suffer from primary progressive multiple sclerosis. But I also hold the highest regard for human life and believe that a human embyro (some call it just a cluster of cells) is sacred and believe the intentional destruction of human life is wrong. For now, I am in favor of adult stem cell research and hope the answer to incurable diseases will be found here.

    By the way, thanks for the wonderful NYC wheelchair pics and videos. They're fabulous!

  3. anillo: thank you for appreciating my words...

    anonymous: I certainly respect your views, and I believe that intelligent debate works to the betterment of both sides of any argument.

    Unfortunately, the Bush edict prohibiting federal funding of ESC research effectively put an end to such research in the United States. The ruling banned such research being done at any facility that received federal funding for any purposes whatsoever, and virtually no facility sophisticated enough to conduct responsible embryonic stem cell research was completely free of products, equipment, or personnel that hadn't been procured with federal funds. If a facility so much had a federally funded test tube on the premises, they were prohibited from doing embryonic stem cell research, even if that research was privately funded.

    Thanks for the kind words about my pics and videos. I'm happy you enjoyed them.

  4. Dear Wheelchair Kamikaze,

    Although I hold much compassion for your plight with MS, your scientific knowledge and bioethical analysis are both lacking.

    Firstly, scientists are not trying to revert Adult stem cells to ESC (embryonic stem cells), but rather it is the other way around. The adult stem cell has already traveled (differentiated) much of the distance toward a functional cell which can be used for therapeutic purposes. That is why there has been many successes so far with the adult stem cell compared to the ESC. Unfortunately, because of this lack of differentiation, the ESC poses real threats of inducing teratomas (i.e., a ball of cancerous growth having bone, teeth, hair, nerves and other cell types) in human who enroll in ESC trials. This danger has been already documented in several animal studies using embryonic stem cells.

    What you appear to be confused about perhaps is a technology called iPPS (induced pluipotent stem cells). This technology uses neither adult nor embryonic stem cells, but rather differentiated mature cells (like skin cells). Using recombinant viruses they reprogram the mature cell back into a pluripotent state where they hopefully can then direct them into any cell type they desire.

    My advice to you is don’t hold your breath for embryonic stem cells to provide a cure or “help repair some of the havoc wrought by the disease on MS damaged nervous systems”. It won’t happen in your life time or your grandchild’s life time. The complexities of epigenetic and environmental factors involved in the differentiation of the ESC will inhibit our ability to ever perfect differentiation of the ESC to a degree that it will be safe. You chances of dying from a clinical trial using ESC is much greater than it ever finding a cure for MS.

    Just as historically we have been forced to have universal rights for man, woman, races and children due to obvious abuses of those with power, we soon will have to institute rights for the human embryo. In years to come, we will look back and groan with disbelief and repulsion that we have defined the human embryo as just a “clump of cells” used for any means to our end. Right now Mr. Wheelchair Kamikaze, you are too sick with your own problems to see the truth of this statement. One day I hope you will.

  5. watchdogonscience: Thanks for your response.

    Just as you think I am mistaken because I have "too sick with my own problems", I isobvious to me that your blind faith has clouded your understanding of hard science.

    It is the very lack of differentiation in ESC that endows them with their tremendous potential for curative properties. Adult stem cells, at most, are multipotent, meaning that they can differentiate into a handful of different kinds of tissue. Embryonic cells, as you say, are pluripotent, meaning that they can differentiate into any type of cell in the body, giving them enormous potential as therapeutic agents. The very fact that efforts towards iPPS are made proves the potential of pluripotent cells.

    While it is true that this pluripotence also gives them the potential to become cancerous, most objective researchers expect that science will be able to eliminate this obviously negative propensity. Induced pluripotent cells would share such negative properties.

    The guarantee of rights to all men, women, and children that you speak of applies to living, breathing, feeling, thinking, fully sentient beings. Granting a tiny group of undifferentiated cells, which would be discarded if not used for research, the same rights that are granted living human beings is strictly a matter of faith. Since faith is exactly that, a group of beliefs that can never be proven, the faithful have no right to impose their views on those that don't share them. Legislating based on faith leads to the wild excesses put on horrific display by the likes of the Taliban.

    Unless you have incredible psychic abilities along with your enduring faith, you can't know what kind of advances science will make in using embryonic stem cells. I'm something of a gambling man, and I'd wager that ESC research will lead to useful therapies well within the next generation's lifetime. Too late for me, perhaps, but soon eenough to save countless human beings from the ravages of a host of horrific maladies.

  6. I don't intend to hijack this commentary as it would be rude to Marc and his blog. I will say two things and leave it be. I find Watchdogonscience's comments to be incredibly self-righteous and condescending. Who are you to tell anyone with MS that they are too sick to see YOUR "truth?" To reiterate, universal rights embodied in such things as the 14th Amendment to the Constitution refer to living sentient beings. Please take your judgment elsewhere.

    Not to be crass but consider this hypothetical. You are in a burning building that is about to collapse.
    You have just enough time to move in one direction and then get out.
    Would you save the crying infant to your right whose mother waits outside or the 5 zygotes (whom you consider full humans) sitting in a petri dish to your left?

  7. HA HA You have opened the can of worms. So allow me to throw a little more gas on the fire. I am a woman...also have MS. I am also a mother. As a mother, I may have given this disease to my child (no one knows how much heredity plays a part.) I had my child before being diagnosed. That being said, I have no intentions of having any more children. My body simply would not allow it. Yet, here I sit with two baskets of eggs that I am not using.

    Would I be interested in donating these eggs for stem cell research? You bet I would. And yes, a part of it is for selfish reasons. I don't like this disease and if i could find a way to kick it's a$$ I would. But a part of the reason I would do this is because I see how many lives can be saved from so many different diseases and disorders that stem cell therapy can cure.

    Morally, you can tell me it's wrong all day long. However, I can tell you how I feel about seeing homeless children in my city. I think it comes down to personal choice. If they were using animal stem cells for research would people feel so strongly? Would you cry about the morality of killing fish eggs or spider monkeys?

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  9. Just wanted to state that I welcome opposing viewpoints being posted here on my blog. As long as someone's opinions are stated intelligently, and without derision towards others opinions, I think the give-and-take of ideas is a valuable thing.