This column appears in the November issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
The era of stem cells, an advocacy campaign from the start, began eight years ago. On November 6, 1998, articles reporting the isolation of embryonic cells appeared in Science, and, not coincidentally, on the front page of the New York Times. The lengthy Times article was written by Nicholas Wade, a tireless champion of stem cells and their medical promise. More articles by him appeared in the next few days, some reporting that stem cells are immortal. For a while it seemed possible that defective tissue might eventually be replaced by immortal tissue, so that death itself might become a thing of the past.
In his article “Immortality, of a Sort, Beckons to Biologists,” prominently featured in the paper’s “Science” section that November 17, Wade wrote that if stem cells could be “guided down” the right paths, they could then be “immortalized” by the addition of a particular gene. The tissues they formed “would then be permanently youthful.” William A. Hazeltine of Human Genome Sciences foresaw old and worn out tissue being replaced with immortalized stem cells — “a clearly articulated vision of human immortality that will be introduced slowly over the next 50 years.”
Even at the time, such claims seemed one step removed from the fraudulent. Since then the claim that the activation of a gene can release a substance — telomerase — that can immortalize a cell has been abandoned. The only immortal cells we know of are cancer cells. Claims of immortality are no longer heard, but the stock price of Geron Corporation, the company that had funded early stem-cell research, soon soared, peaking above $69 a share in 2000. (It has since fallen to a tenth of that value.) Geron was founded by Michael D. West — a “visionary,” in Nicholas Wade’s estimation — whose initial purpose in founding the company was to research aging and if possible do something about it.
The early reporting on stem cells emphasized the immortality claim. In its first news report on the human stem-cell claims, for example, Science magazine wrote that James Thomson and his team at the University of Wisconsin “report in this issue of Science that they have isolated stem cells from human embryos and coaxed them to grow in five ‘immortal’ cell lines.” That was an important reason why stem cells attracted so much attention. It wasn’t just diabetics and Parkinson’s patients who stood to benefit, but everyone who wanted to stay young.
Just about every news story ever written on stem cells has been divided into two parts. On the one hand, the bright medical promise shines before us. Stem cells have the “potential” to turn into almost any of the more specialized cells. This in turn will provide tissue engineers with an endless supply of spare parts. Whether immortal or not, they will be able to replace defective cells. But then comes the dark side. Scientists will have to contend with the moralists and naysayers who care not a whit for progress and the quality of life. On the day after its initial story the Times published an editorial with a headline that set the trend: “A Ban on Cells That Could Heal.”
In 1995, Congress had banned the federal financing of research on cells derived from embryos. That ban was later lifted, but in August 2001 President Bush decreed that the use of federal funds for such research would be restricted to those stem-cell lines already in existence. Briefly applauded for allowing the research to continue, Bush soon became the villain. How could science possibly progress without federal money? The conflict between hopeful science and reactionary morality has remained the storyline of choice ever since.
California voters bought the argument that taxpayers’ money can prevail over all scientific challenges. In 2004, they approved a $3 billion ballot initiative, permitting stem-cell scientists in the state to circumvent federal restrictions. Gov. Schwarzenegger collaborated, as he has more recently with a politically correct anti-global warming measure that threatens to cost the state a lot more than $3 billion.
THE WELL-ADVERTISED CONFLICT between progressive science and backward ethics has had the important effect of distracting attention from the feebleness and sometimes the actual deceptiveness of the scientific claims made on behalf of embryonic stem cells.
The principal claim is that they can have the potential to develop into any cell in the body. Here is how John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins put it in the first sentence of his article in the November 6, 1998 issue of Science. “Pluripotential stem cells, present in the early stages of embryo development, can generate all of the cell types in a fetus and in the adult and are capable of self-renewal.”
The key word here is “can.” He does not say “have been shown to.” From the beginning, the claim made on behalf of embryonic stem cells simply expands upon the definition of stem cells. Gearhart’s sentence above could be rewritten: “Stem cells that can generate all of the cell types in a fetus can generate all of the cell types in a fetus….”
We know that a fertilized egg has the potential to develop into all the body’s cell types because if that development is undisturbed in the womb, it will in fact develop into a full body with all its cell types. That is all that is being claimed. It is deceptive because a definitional truth masquerades as an empirical claim. It looks as though something has been demonstrated in the lab, when it is simply inherent in a definition.
Scott King, who runs a small biotech company in San Francisco, keeps a close eye on stem cells because he is himself a type 1 (juvenile) diabetic and therefore has a personal stake in the outcome of this research. He is one of the very few people to have pointed out the tautological nature of the major claim made on behalf of stem cells. They are simply cells that have the potential to differentiate into other types of cells, he says. Go back to an early enough stage of the embryo, and it is both true and uncontroversial to say that the cells of that embryo are “pluripotent.” They certainly can turn into most other cell types, because they do so in fact when the embryo grows normally.
The definitional problem with stem cells, and the circularity of the claims made on their behalf, has received almost no attention in the literature. Wade did point out in his 1998 Times article that the stem cells obtained from embryos “do not seem definably different from the handful of primordial cells from which an entire individual is created.” And in 2004, two stem-cell experts wrote in the Scientific American that stem cells “cannot be distinguished by appearance. They are defined by their behavior.” But the general public is unaware of the problem.
The second, and crucial, stem-cell claim is that, having extracted these cells from the early-stage embryo, scientists can then coax, nudge, or direct them into becoming whatever specialized cells are desired: in the case of diabetics, insulin-making islet cells, for example. But this has turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Eight years of tinkering and coaxing have not yet resulted in the generation of any human islet cells from stem cells, Scott King says.
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