Among the Intellectualoids

Brown the Bioethicist

Does the British Prime Minister know that he's peddling snake oil?

By 5.21.08

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This week, Britain's Labour Party made remarkable progress in securing the country's reputation as the most scientifically illiterate and morally obtuse hamlet in the Western world. At the urging of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, both houses of Parliament defeated amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that would have outlawed the creation of "chimerical embryos."

Chimeras (whether "cybrids" or "hybrids") are human embryos that contain genetic material from other species. Chinese researchers began in 2003 by fusing human cells with rabbit eggs to produce the first human-animal chimeras. Two years later scientists at Stanford University planned an experiment to create mice with human brains.

"To what end?" is a good question here. As James Sherley, from the Program in Regenerative Biology and Cancer, Boston, notes, "Huge volumes of...basic cellular and molecular biology must be ignored to justify [this kind of] research."

In fact, "Not a single new experiment is necessary to know with certainty that human-animal cloning will not provide faithful models for human-human cloning."

British neuroscientist Neil Scolding admits that "few serious embryonic stem-cell scientists will speak in support of cybrid embryos specifically on the basis of their intrinsic potential for therapeutic research..."

YET IN A recent editorial in the Observer, Prime Minister Brown makes just such a ridiculous claim. Whether from honest ignorance or blatant dishonesty, Brown attempts to convince the public that chimerical research is not only necessary but vital for biomedical research.

Since adult stem cells are "already being used in treatments for conditions including leukemia and heart disease," explains the Prime Minister, "scientists are close to the breakthroughs that will allow embryonic stem cells to be used to treat a much wider range of conditions, especially those affecting the brain and nervous system."

While it is true that adult stem cells have been used in treatments for over 70 diseases and condition, it is patently false that "scientists are close" to breakthroughs using embryonic stem cells. The question, as framed by Professor Sherley, is not "How soon could human embryonic stem cells be used for cures?" but rather, "Could human embryonic stem cells ever be used for cures?"

Answer: "When the errant biological properties of human embryonic stem cells are considered, it is difficult to foresee them ever being used directly as cures in children or adults...figuring out how to use human embryonic stem cells directly by transplantation into patients is tantamount to solving the cancer problem."

In other words, embryonic stem cell research will start producing cures as soon as we figure out how to cure cancer.

And stem cells derived from cloned embryos are even less useful. Even the New England Journal of Medicine backhandedly admits that such research is likely to be fruitless, because the "technical difficulties and ethical complexities of this approach [cloned human embryonic stem cells] were always likely to render it impractical."

BROWN, WHO OBVIOUSLY hasn't kept up with the latest findings, passes on a myth that has been debunked for almost half a decade. He claims that stem cell research will help to cure "diseases that have afflicted mankind over centuries -- from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's to conditions such as cancer..."

It has long been recognized by researchers that embryonic stem cells are unlikely to have any significant impact on degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Dr. Scolding says that expecting that the implantation of "stem-cell-derived neurons" will cure Alzheimer's, "would be a little like packing a few cogs and wheels and springs into the back of a broken clock and waiting for it to start working again."

Having established that he knows nothing about the subject at hand, Brown adds this whopper: "[Medical researchers] argue that the safest way to maintain progress is to make use of animal eggs from which the animal genetic material is almost entirely removed, then a human cell nucleus added, to make them compatible for research on human diseases."

Earlier this week, 16 medical scientists from around the world -- from Munich to Melbourne, Detroit to Dusseldorf -- sent an open letter to Brown refuting this nonsense. These scientists were all "actively involved in stem-cell research and regenerative medicine," and denied that they hold "a single common view about the relative merits, ethics and potential of adult v (conventional) embryonic stem cells."

But they could agree that the Prime Minister's "extravagant claims regarding the purported merits of human-non-human interspecies embryos are mistaken and misleading." The research that he would allow, they wrote, "would damage public confidence and support, to the detriment both of the cause of stem-cell science and, ultimately, of patients."

BROWN'S "MISTAKEN AND MISLEADING" impression is not surprising. British journalist Simon Carr pointed out that "the most fundamental fact about the debate is [the MPs] didn't actually know what a stem cell is." Another fundamental fact, disregarded in the debate is that stem cell research using chimeras is a colossal waste of money, resources, and, most importantly, of the lives of humans beings.

In clinging to their willful ignorance, Brown and his Labour Party are attempting to deny the reality of bioethics and bioscience. But as Aldous Huxley once observed, "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."

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