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Mengele Medicine

Will stem-cell research go the way of the Human Genome Project?

By 11.29.04

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WASHINGTON -- No doubt the remaining federal restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research will soon be swept aside. Federal funding is limited to pre-existing cell lines, but with private money, everything is permitted. Meanwhile the California initiative seems set to provide $3 billion for embryo research, so the states may soon take their turn digging into taxpayers' pockets. The issue was boosted during the Democratic convention, when Nancy Reagan's son spoke to an admiring audience, saying that embryonic stem cell research was "like magic." It may be "the greatest medical breakthrough in our or in any lifetime." In Newsweek, Nancy's daughter Patti Davis called stem cells "the miracle that can cure not only Alzheimer's but many other diseases." Ron Reagan omitted Alzheimer's but said stem cells "could cure" Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, lymphoma spinal cord injuries "and much more."

When the funding restriction breaks down, as I predict it will, reports of stem-cell miracles will rapidly fade. "Breakthroughs" will be reported on schedule, as always, but actual cures are unlikely to ensue. That's what happened with the Human Genome Project. (Remember that?) It was wholly hyped, fully funded, and given its own employment center at the National Institutes of Health. Once that was accomplished, little more was heard of the disease-curing potential of the genome sequence. The reason is clear enough. That potential has turned out to be little more than zero. A similar scenario will probably unfold with embryonic stem cells.

The stem-cell campaign was bolstered by the familiar hostility to religious sentiment. It has not been difficult for the propagandists to represent opposition to government-financed embryo research as obstructionism borne of bigotry -- fundamentalism standing in the path of progress as always. Religion, so the argument goes, has been up to its old tricks: thwarting science and enlightenment.

In a good essay in the Weekly Standard, Eric Cohen and William Kristol commented that embryo research is "potentially more corrupting than abortion." It is "a fruit we seek, not a transgression we tolerate. It is a premeditated project, not a decision made in crisis." Conservatives have held the line against the moral horrors of embryo research -- Mengele Medicine, it might be called -- but they have been too disposed to take the scientific claims of biotech at face value. Such claims are always greatly exaggerated, and always with the same goal in mind: attracting government funding, private investment, or both.

We get miracles in the headlines, but the fine print tells a different story. As to the prospects of a cure for Alzheimer's, for example, the Wall Street Journal told us (on an inside page): "With some conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, science has yet to understand what goes wrong. Simply replacing damaged brain cells with new ones grown in the lab from stem cells isn't yet feasible and may not be for decades, researchers say."

A miracle cure -- in a few decades' time. Maybe. Why is this nonsense tolerated by the editorial high command of magazines like Newsweek?

Rick Weiss of the Washington Post did blow the whistle in this instance, pointing out that Alzheimer's was an implausible candidate for stem-cell treatment. But the newspaper is inclined to treat the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, as an important segment of its subscriber base, not as a lavishly funded government agency that constantly promotes its own expansion. Perhaps one day the Post will be as suspicious of the NIH as it is of the Pentagon and the CIA.

DIABETES HAS ALSO FEATURED prominently in the stem-cell hype. In juvenile-onset diabetes (the serious kind), the cells that make insulin, called islet cells, are erroneously destroyed by the body's own immune system. The hope is that replacements can be created out of stem cells. I spoke to Scott King, a friend of mine who both has this form of diabetes and runs a biotech company, Cerco Medical, that is looking for an effective treatment for diabetes. Researchers have not yet succeeded in turning one stem cell into an islet cell, he said. In fact, they don't even know where in the embryo to look for a plausible candidate cell. Early promise soon faded. Stem cells, in one account, have been unwilling to "respond to the scientists' commands." They have proved to be "extraordinarily difficult to manipulate."

It's beginning to look as though the vaunted potential of stem cells to be transformed into specialized cells is little more than a tautology. The fully-grown body starts life as two cells, a sperm and an egg. The cells of the embryo then multiply, and it is true by definition that those early cells have the "potential" to turn into all the cells of the body, numbering literally in the trillions. We know that because they do so in fact. The fully grown body must have originated from cells that were present in the embryonic phase. They certainly didn't come from outside the body. But how far does this get us?

What it overlooks is that the specialized cells develop their differentiated functions as a result of interactions with other cells in the growing body. The assumption that the cell can be removed from this environment and then "coaxed" in the lab dish to evolve in the direction that experimenters desire is mere hubris. It is comparable to believing that pupils can be removed from a school that produces successful scholars, in the belief that even more students can be prepared by giving them special tutoring. The problem is that they don't know which students to isolate, or what their special training should be. And all along it was the school itself that created the indispensable conditions for learning.

Genetic engineering is turning out to be as hard to achieve in our day as social engineering was in the Communist era. Curiously, the opposite error seems to be involved. Social engineering was (rightly) derided as unattainable because "nature" was overlooked. Genes were disregarded as unimportant. Genetic engineering in contrast has omitted to consider the role of "nurture," or the environment of the cell. Genes are now thought to be autonomous and all important -- wrong again.

STEVE MILLOY OF THE CATO Institute believes that stem cell hype began with researchers and investors who were counting on taxpayer funding to increase the value of their stakes in biotech companies. They could then "cash out at a hefty profit, leaving the taxpayers holding the bag of fruitless research." When Bush failed to cooperate they "were enraged and began a campaign to pressure the President into opening the taxpayer spigots … on the basis of a wild-eyed hope that cures are near at hand."

It's an interesting theory, and one would like to see more of this skepticism from the mainstream media. There may be some truth to it, too, although I would like to see more in the way of specifics. Who was behind California's Proposition 71, for example?

Meanwhile, there is another motive that is more universal and probably more destructive than greed: the search for security and comfort. Scientists no doubt believe their own wild predictions of biotech cures, but it is not important whether they do or not. What is at stake is a cushy life for science. Once that is attained, and scientists get their funding, their lifetime tenure, their extra lab assistants, and their up-to-date equipment, little of medical value will emerge from their labs.

What changes in science when the most important consideration becomes sustaining a political consensus in favor of funding it by taxation? It's a question that isn't even asked. Soviet science didn't exactly flourish. What happened to the hundred-billion odd that has been spent on the War on Cancer? My guess is that our notion of what science is undergoes a subtle but fatal change once it is obliged to meet a political test, and consensus replaces competition. But that is another story.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).