Friday, September 17, 2010

Stemming the tide

Do you ever do anything that might destroy some of your cells?  Probably we all do that all the time, when we scratch, take actions that may lead to cuts, and so on.  We shed live and dead cells all the time.  So what, they're just cells!

But then if we're willing to do that, why do we care about stem cells?  If stem cells are humans-in-waiting, why aren't skin cells the same?  For example, if they're alive do they have souls?  If not, is there a reason not to engineer them so they can grow organs like skin, livers, or even whole people?

Does it matter if a cell made into a general stem cell, from some other type of cell, is used to grow tissues, organs, or even whole individuals came from a fertilized egg rather than a skin cell?  Does it matter whether the tissue you destroy is an early embryo (blastocyst), is from a liver biopsy?

These kinds of question show, we think, why the stem cell debate, and its legal back-and-forths, miss the main points that are at issue.  Each of us has a different idea of what constitutes a 'life' that needs some sort of protection.  The courts are simply the arenas in which different views are aired.

Everyone seems to have a reason to support or oppose 'stem cell research', but each may differ as to what that means.  It is difficult to understand why a blastocyst (a few-stage early embryo) is different from what would result from de-differentiating a skin or blood cell so that it could form other tissues, or even a whole person (the latter may not currently be possible, but soon will, we think).

We can't really appeal to evolution, or genetics, or even religion for answers.  This is a new technology.  The decisions really aren't about science (or, by the way, whether Francis Collins is a fundamentalist or not), they are about individual views about the world.  Is it better to argue against stem cells because your sacred text somehow deals with the subject? To our knowledge, no sacred text deals with the subject.  Or is it somehow less relevant to advocate stem cell research because it might help you recover from some disease (does God care about that, if he'll welcome you to Heaven some day?).  Or to clone yourself as a source for organ harvesting if you need a transplant some day?  Or if you support stem cell research because you can make a big profit selling the results?

These are issues that bring science and society into a mix, but decisions about it really have nothing to do with science.  They have to do with ethics and politics.  Indeed, in our kind of society they should, and must, be decided in a sociopolitical way.  Science about what kinds of cells can have what potential, is simply unequipped to determine whether those potentials should or should not be realized.

Science may have to comment on what is feasible.  But science cannot decide what is right.


Anonymous said...

Prediction: if money is to be made (by certain parties), obstacles to stem cell research will disappear like mist. If there is no money to be made, many mountains will remain unclimbable.

Ken Weiss said...

This is a pragmatist's or realist's (or cynic's) view, and seems largely correct. People are very few whose fundamental principles are not affected by practical considerations, especially if they help with material self-interest like health problems.

One would have to respect those people, even if disagreeing with them.

James Goetz said...

Ken, I want to make sure that I understand one of your points. Are you saying, we'll "soon" see labs forming adult stem cells into implantable morulas?

I suppose that nobody would complain if you would do that with mice adult stem cells. But it would have quite the impact on the stem cell research debate. And if it could be done with human adult stem cells, then it might make the debate obsolete because nobody would need to electively destroy human blastocysts for stem cell research.

Anyway, does any published research indicate that we'll "soon" see labs forming mammalian adult stem cells into implantable morulas?

Ken Weiss said...

Not yet as far as I know, but I think it's a mistake to bet against technology. Sooner or later some version of this will be made available. The ethical issues are separate, and have to be (or should be) settled in the political/social arena.