Stem Cell Breakthrough: What It Could Mean, and What It Shouldn't

The world awakened to news of a major breakthrough in making human "spare parts". By inserting 4 genes into normal skin cells, scientists from two laboratories (one in the US, the other in Japan) have demonstrated that the skin cell can "revert" to the primal "embryonic" type of cell that can then be coaxed by chemicals and local environment to then become specialized again as bone marrow, brain, heart, lung, pancreas, and other tissues of the body.

The scientists are quick to point out that there are hurdles to address before such cells can be used to replace diseased pancreas cells to reverse diabetes, or heart cells to reverse the effects of heart attack, or spinal cord cells to repair injury that causes paralysis. One such hurdle is to ensure that these cells do not revert back in the body to the primal state that could then cause cancer.

What it could mean: the reason this breakthrough is so exciting medically is that, if successful, each person can make his own "spare parts" that would contain all the same genes and so would not be rejected as "foreign" by the body. To accomplish the same goal with embryonic stem cells, an unfertilized egg would have to be injected with DNA from an individual's skin cells (aka, "therapeutic cloning"). Although that has been achieved, e.g., in sheep, it requires the harvesting of eggs for each person to create the cell line that would also not be "foreign". That has always appeared to be a hurdle for mass use of this technology.

Human embryonic stem cells (hESC) have, however, been propagated as cell lines by taking cells from a developing embryo, exposing them to specific environments, and causing them to become cells of various tissues. Such cells, however, would not have the same genetics at the recipient, and thus would be expected to be rejected. Yet, they have been used successfully in rats to repair injured spinal cords, and replace heart cells and replace pancreas cells, and, at least as long as the experiments were carried out, were not rejected as foreign. Why? There are theories, beyond the scope of this article to describe.

What it Shouldn't Mean: This should not lead to the end of hESC research. It is too early in the development of either technology to give up on hESCs, just because the rightwing has been able to create the impression of a false ethical choice. The hESCs proposed to be used are those that are going to be discarded---or, to use the pejorative, "killed" anyhow, and the entire so-called debate is whether to use those cells instead in hESC research.

Thus, the debate is NOT a matter of deciding whether a human embryo is a human life or not, or whether it deserves the same legal protections as a newborn. Whether used to create cell lines or discarded, the opportunity for that embryo to become a fully-formed human is eliminated in either case. Nor is it the issue Bush raises, of one "life" being sacrificed for others---is that not what is occurring daily in Iraq, thanks to the same Mr. Bush? And, if he tries to argue that the difference is that those in Iraq volunteered, then he should be open to people reversing that decision, and would consider a draft, under any circumstances, to be immoral.

Let us not, therefore, rush to judgment, or even take refuge in this wonderful breakthrough to avoid a controversy that has been created for political purposes. Indeed, even though the breakthrough has a greater potential to be widely applicable than therapeutic cloning, we may very well learn how to make this new breakthrough better by continuing to research hESCs. When these "transformed skin cells" have been further developed then, for scientific reasons, research in hESCs may no longer be productive.