Last week’s announcement that three different labs have managed to not only reproduce work showing that certain genes are responsible for embryonic-stem-cell-ness, but actually managed to turn adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells has been widely reported and comment upon.
Times Magazine displays blatant racism and not a little naivete in their report, “Japan gets ahead of the curve”:
But it was March 2006, just months after the South Korean stem-cell scientist Hwang Woo Suk—who had become an international sensation after claiming to have cloned a human embryo, a first—had been exposed as a fraud. As another Asian stem-cell scientist announcing a surprise advance, Yamanaka knew his peers would put him under the microscope. (emphasis mine)
Yep, all them furinner’s look alike to us.
Actually, the Times reporter mentioned the most important factor in any increased scrutiny and pressure from Yamanaka’s peers: “. . . because Yamanaka did not use human embryos, his technique offered researchers everywhere a way to sidestep the ethical controversies that have dogged the field since its birth.”
We’ve been treated to examples of politics in science each time non-destructive stem cells news breaks out. I reported on the comments at the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities meeting last October. David Stevens, MD, CEO of the Christian Medical and Dental Association describes the scenario:
. . . proponents rushed to the microphone to do damage control and claiming we must continue embryonic stem cell research since we can’t predict which technique will provide cures. With 1,200 clinical studies underway using adult stem cells and none using embryonic ones as well as these two breakthrough studies in the last year, it is becoming a pretty sure thing on simple pragmatic grounds where we should be putting our tax money. It is like predicting whether the San Antonio Spurs are going to beat your local Saturday afternoon pick up basketball team.
The emperor has no clothes but continues to ride smiling through the public. Sooner or later the people notice.”
(Go, Spurs, Go! Yeaaay Champs! Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
We’ve read that the results we keep seeing from adult stem cells are simply a matter of the numbers – more US tax dollars are spent on adult stem cell research than on embryonic stem cell research, and embryonic stem cell research is much newer than adult. But let’s look at the facts: Yamanaka did his work in Japan, and Nature is published in the United Kingdom. Nope, no influence from US tax payer funding or the lack there of. Perhaps it’s just that non-destructive stem cell research actually produces reliable, frequent results?
But maybe, just maybe, if we get out our tin hats and/or risk assuming a duty to die, we might contemplate there’s Something Else going on. A UK conspiracy? Or is Someone higher up messing with the United States Congress?
Ironically, the day this bill passed last fall, the news announced the breakthrough study that showed that amniotic stem cells could become endoderm, ectoderm and mesoderm. They have all the benefits of embryonic stem cells but none of the risks. They don’t turn into cancers, they are readily available, genetically stable and easier to control. This year, the ground breaking study on dedifferentiating mouse skin cells into embryonic stem cells hit the front pages and TV screens the same day as the House vote and stole its thunder. Though this technique has a number of hurdles to cross before being applicable in humans, I’m beginning to wonder if God has a great sense of humor!
(Go, God, Go! Had to do it.)
And Dr. Stevens is not the only one to notice that there are just too many coincidences, what Yogi Berra called, “Deja vu, all over again.”
A very funny Washington Post Op-Ed by Rick Weiss, entitled “Darn cells, Dividing Yet Again!” could be used to discuss humans’ need to attribute natural phenomena with supernatural explanations with these guys, over at The Edge. Or at least a cosmic conspiracy.
Go read the whole thing, but here’s a bit:
Is there a plot afoot?
Lots of lobbyists, members of Congress and even a few scientists are starting to think so.
“It is ironic that every time we vote on this legislation, all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically says, ‘You don’t have to do stem cell research,’ ” Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) sputtered on the House floor on Thursday. “I find it very interesting that every time we bring this bill up there is a new scientific breakthrough,” echoed Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), lead sponsor of the embryo access bill. Her emphasis on the word “interesting” clearly implies something more than mere interest.
“Convenient timing for those who oppose embryonic stem cell research, isn’t it?” added University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan in an online column. (The bill passed easily, but not with a margin large enough to override Bush’s promised veto.)
Even some scientists, those exemplars of rationality, couldn’t help but wonder if somebody, somewhere, was — if not out to get them — at least taking some pleasure in irritating them.
“I don’t think this is the most sensitive timing for Nature to release these papers,” said Harvard stem cell scientist Kevin Eggan, the lead author of one of the articles that appeared in the London-based journal on Thursday.
Twice in six months. What are the odds?