Unnecessary Faustian bargain

The Washington Times

Saturday, March 14, 2009
GALLAGHER: Unnecessary Faustian bargain Maggie Gallagher

With a stroke of a pen, President Obama has reversed former President
Bush’s ban on taxpayer financing of embryonic stem cell research. (In a
display of indifference or cowardice, he has announced he’s leaving it
to Congress to decide whether and how to further lift restrictions on
human cloning.)

But “embryonic stem cell research”? Now there’s a mouthful. What does
that mean?

It means research that is willing to destroy some nascent human lives in
order to (possibly) save others. The politically astute move by the
president produced in the New York Times a beautifully self-serving Page
One headlines:
“Obama puts his own spin on the mix of science with politics.”

Dr. George Q. Daley, who studies blood diseases at Children’s Hospital
in Boston, said private money is drying up for embryonic research,
making the public money particularly welcome.

Why? Controversy may be part of the reason, but venture capital
basically is streaming away from embryo-destroying research precisely
because the science is moving so powerfully (at least in the short and
medium term) toward other, more convenient sources of stem cells, as
the science reporter for the New York Times admits:

“The Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka found in 2007 that adult cells
could be reprogrammed to an embryonic state with surprising ease. …
For researchers, reprogramming an adult cell can be much more
convenient, and there have never been any restrictions on working with
adult stem cells.

“For therapy, far off as that is, treating patients with their own cells
would avoid the problem of immune rejection.”

Every week, more stories cross my e-mail about potentially lifesaving
treatments being developed from stem cells. These stories almost never
make the headline news (or even back page) precisely because they share
one salient
characteristic: The researchers making these brilliant discoveries do
not obtain stem cells by destroying human life. And so their
achievements are not “news,”
at least, not big news – not a Page One stick with which to beat former
President Bush and his pro-life ilk over the head.

That is, they are not that interesting to politicians and partisans
fighting culture wars. They are only of interest to someone who knows
and loves a person suffering from one of the diseases they may someday
help cure.

Just recently, for example, not one but two potential breakthroughs
crossed my desk – two very typical ones:
The Whitehead Institute reports that for the first time it has been
able to reprogram skin cells from Parkinson’s patients into
“pluripotent” stem cells (similar to embryonic) that can be used to
create dopamine-producing neurons, while leaving behind potential
cancer-causing genes. The neurons are genetically identical to the
patient from which they come, which might eventually prove hugely
important to patient care and is even more immediately important in
testing possible new drug therapies.

Meanwhile at the 67th annual meeting of the American Academy of
Dermatology, dermatologists presented study findings in which cultured
stem cells and bioengineered skin were used to successfully treat skin
ulcers of three scleroderma patients – a painful and incurable disease
affecting 300,000 Americans.
Where did the researchers get these stem cells? In small amounts of
bone marrow from the affected patient’s hip.
Not news, in other words, just good news.

If you queried these researchers, they may well support lifting
government restrictions on taxpayer financing of stem cell research. I
do not doubt most scientists would prefer that government money came
completely unfettered from any oversight. (Come to think of it, so do
most bankers, most welfare mothers and most overmortgaged homeowners.)

But people betting their own money are betting against embryonic stem
cell research as the likeliest pathway to cures for diseases. Companies
that have invested in embryonic research are correspondingly desperately
anxious to use government to commandeer your money and mine.

And they have used politics precisely to make it happen.

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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