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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes

Why We're Not Arguing About Stem Cells Anymore

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I'm sure if I did a deep enough google search, I'd  find some reference to stem cells coming up during the recent campaign, but I honestly can't recall any candidate raising the issue. The blogs were silent. A campaign in which every conceivable social edge issue was deployed observed almost complete radio silence on the issue that just a few years ago riled the political world.

As recently as 2006, Democrat Jim Doyle rode to a second term as governor largely on the  strength of the manufactured wedge issue, claiming, quite falsely, that Republican Mark Green wanted to ban all stem cell research. The truth was that Green, like other conservatives, was concerned about the ethical implications of taxpayer funded embryonic stem cell research that required the creation and destruction of human embryos. 

For expressing such moral qualms, conservatives were denounced as unfeeling and insensitive. Actor Michael J. Fox became a staple in political campaigns and media hits on the issue. During the 2004 campaign, John Edwards (in)famously claimed that troglodyte conservatives were blocking the path to medical miracles. "If we do the work that we can do in this country" he declared at a campaign stop in Iowa, " the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again."

An even graver charge leveled against conservatives was that by raising  concerns that embryo destruction was morally questionable, they were being "anti-science." 

But it has been science that has vindicated the critics.

  Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal reports on the latest breakthroughs.

 Last month a team at Johns Hopkins University and the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, using a version of Dr. Yamanaka's technique, successfully grew nerve cells from a patient suffering from a rare disease called Riley-Day syndrome, which is linked to early mortality, seizures and other symptoms and caused by a fault in one gene...

In the not-very-distant future, when something is going wrong in one of your organs, one treatment may be to create some stem cells from your body in the laboratory, turn them into cells of that organ, or even rudimentary structures, and then subject them to experimental treatments to see if something cures the problem. ...

Further breakthroughs are coming thick and fast to bring that goal closer.

It's not far-fetched to conclude that, thanks to induced pluripotent stem cells, the embryonic stem-cell debate is fading fast into history. If stem cells derived from the patient's own blood are to offer the same therapeutic benefits as embryonic stem cells, without the immunological complication of coming from another individual, then there would be no need to use cells derived from embryos.

This was, of course, the argument all along: the promise of stem cells was not restricted to embryonic stem cells. Alternative therapies using adult stem cells could obviate the need to destroy embryos, while still advancing the cause of science.

Reports Ridley:

Indeed, that was one of Dr. Yamanaka's original motivations when he set out to induce pluripotency in adult cells. Though he supported embryonic stem-cell research in principle, he once said: "I thought, we can't keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way."

In other words, the moral objections were not "antiscience" at all. To the contrary, they may the spur that has lead to recent breakthroughs.

And it has been that science that effectively ended the political debate over stem cells.

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