October 1, 2022

Showdown at the stem cell corral

“Protean”, from the shape-shifting god of Greek mythology, is a well-worn adjective for describing the potential of stem cells. It works equally well as a description of politics of stem cells, at least in the US.

“Protean”, from the shape-shifting god of Greek mythology, is a well-worn adjective for describing the potential of stem cells. It works equally well as a description of politics of stem cells, at least in the US. After George Bush, Texan become President, restricted the use of human embryonic stem cells, many scientist bitterly criticised him – and the Republic Party – for closing the door on the most promising development in medicine for decades. In the hyperventilated language of a 2003 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “the Promethean prospect of eternal regeneration awaits us”.

Now a Republican Texan would-be President, Rick Perry, is under fire, it seems for taking these dreams seriously. Stanley Jones, a Houston surgeon, in July, injected Mr Perry’s own stem cells to treat his ailing back. As well, Mr Perry is directing millions of dollars into adult stem cell research, which he sees as a potential boost to the Texas economy and an alternative to embryonic stem cells. “It is my hope that Texas will become the world’s leader in the research and use of adult stem cells,” he has written. “With the right policies in place, we can lead the nation in advancing adult-stem-cell research that will treat diseases, cure cancers and, ultimately, save lives.”

This sounds remarkably similar to remarks made by President Obama when he loosened his predecessor’s restrictions: “these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions”.  

How has the scientific community responded? Judging from an investigative feature in Nature, with great hostility. “We must protect patients from risky treatments advanced by overzealous, even greedy, entrepreneurs,” wrote Bettie Sue Masters, of  the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. The Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on doctors spruiking stem cell treatments.  “If Perry was treated in the United States, it was clearly in violation” of FDA regulations, a former FDA official told Nature.

Such is the Protean nature of politics. Once again stem cells are shaping up to be a key theme in a presidential campaign. But this time will the Republicans be selling hope, and the Democrats sour scepticism and high-minded ethical reservations? The 2012 campaign will be an interesting showdown for bioethics as well. ~ Nature, Sept 20

Michael Cook
stem cells
Texas