February 29, 2024

Two-track research needed, say stem cell scientists

Embryo research is still essential for progress

The stunning advance last month which may make human embryonic stem cells
(ESCs) unnecessary for cures for dread diseases has both delighted and alarmed
scientists. They fear that funding for ESC research could wither away. "This is
exactly the wrong time to constrain research on human embryonic stem cells,"
said a Nature editorial, "which for one thing will be required to help
scientists work out how best to coax adult cells into becoming new tissues."

And the executive publisher of Science, Alan I. Leshner, and the
senior author on the American paper which described how to reprogram skin cells,
James Thomson, wrote
in the Washington Post
that "we’re at square one, uncertain at this early
stage whether souped-up skin cells hold the same promise as their embryonic
cousins do." A two-track approach is needed.

What these scientists find galling is the suggestion that President Bush’s
restrictions on embryo research have been vindicated because they eventually
generated innovative alternatives. This is a "fundamentally flawed" idea,
complain Leshner and Thomson. Bush’s policy was always a colossal mistake.
American stem cell scientists were forced to seek work overseas, progress was
delayed and the foundation for this latest development was laid in Japan, not in
the US. Stem cell scientists would only be too glad to abandon contentious work
on embryos, "but that moment has not yet arrived" according to Nature.

A rival interpretation of the exciting events of the last few weeks was
offered by columnist Charles
in the Washington Post. The embryonic stem cell debate is
over, he says, and President Bush has been vindicated. He cites James Thomson
(in an unguarded moment, perhaps): "If human embryonic stem cell research does
not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it
enough." Because of reservations by President Bush, scientists were forced to
think outside the box to find an ethically acceptable alternative. "Providence
then saw to it that the technique be so elegant and beautiful that scientific
reasons alone will now incline even the most wilful researchers to leave the
human embryo alone." ~ Washington Post, Nov 30, Dec 3; New York Times, Dec
; Nature, Nov 29; Newsweek, Nov 24