Stem Cells – March 2007

Debate over embryonic stem cell research has heated up again in Florida.  Two competing bills in the legislature have been proposed even as both sides in this debate gear up to pass, through ballot initiatives in 2008, amendments to Florida’s constitution. These initiatives would, depending on which side wins, either allow or preclude taxpayers’ money being spent on “therapeutic” human cloning and experimentation on stem cells harvested from the destruction of human embryos procreated for this very purpose.

State representative, Antitere Flores, has filed the “Florida Hope Offered Through Principled, Ethically Sound Stem Cell Research Act”. Representative Franklin Sands has proposed a bill that would, despite the ethical objections of many Floridians to human cloning and experimentation with living human embryos and fetal cells, would funnel their taxes to underwrite such research.  So far, Governor Crist has given signals that he supports the Flores bill.  His position has been similar to that of President Bush – opposing government funds for research using new stem cell lines while allowing such research with lines previously in existence for some years.

While biomedical technology seems to be an arcane subject, the debate does generate much heat.  Many people are desperate for cures for themselves or for loved ones. Stem cells, because they are the “building blocks” of the body, hold great promise for repairing organs and treating diseases.  Both bills, in fact, would increase state funding for stem cell research.  The Flores bill, however, would direct those funds to research with “adult” stem cells which is non-controversial since it raises no ethical or moral issues.

Those who raise ethical questions (good ends – the cure of a disease -do not justify evil means -the destruction of human life), are often dismissed as standing in the way of science.  Yet, “science” has yet to show any benefit derived from experimentation with stem cells derived from human embryos.  And embryonic stem cell research in many animal trials has been plagued by the propensity of such embryonic cells to develop tumors. While those who favor the destruction of embryos promise much in the way of future cures, the real progress has been achieved with adult stem cells. To date, patients with over 70 conditions have been shown in peer-reviewed journals to benefit from therapies derived from adult stem cells.

In fact, in the last two years, three of the most prestigious journals in the field – Nature, Science and the New England Journal of Medicine – had to retract part or all of articles extolling advances in embryonic stem cell research when it turned out that they were misleading or falsified.  But, in January of this year, the journal Nature Biotechnology reported a real breakthrough:  researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Children’s Hospital in Boston isolated extremely useful and versatile adult stem cells from the amniotic fluid surrounding unborn children in the womb.  These cells, found in fluid left over from amniocentesis procedures and also obtainable from this fluid or from the placenta at the time of birth, grow rapidly and easily, producing a wide variety of cell types for research and future therapies.  These cells (along with similar cells recently found in cord blood, bone marrow and elsewhere) may have the practical advantages claimed for embryonic stem cells with none of the practical or moral disadvantages.

Good ethics and good science are not mutually exclusive of one another.  So common sense would argue that we put our resources in research that is not ethically challenged or morally suspect.  Hopefully, in this area, common sense and politics are likewise not mutually exclusive of one another.