Stem Cell Breakthrough Does Not Mean Pop the Corks

Announcement yesterday of the discovery that it is possible to create equivalents to embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos is astoundingly good news. So good, in fact, that I’m afraid some people might be losing the focus of stem cell research — to help people with debilitating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or severe spinal injuries. 

Here are some of the comments from the White House:

“The science has overtaken the politics,” Karl Zinsmeister, the chief domestic policy adviser to President Bush, said in an interview yesterday. “If you set reasonable parameters and offer a lot of encouragement and public funding, science will solve this dilemma, and you don’t have to have a culture war about this.”

Zinsmeister said he hopes congressional critics of the president’s policy will now pull back. “We are hopeful that people will now let go of this,” he said.

No, let’s not let go. A breakthrough means science is at the beginning of the path to a deliverable product. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. It was ready for market in 1945. Now the time between yesterday and a deliverable stem cell may well be much shorter, but don’t expect a cakewalk to your local Rite Aid. There are still a couple of bugs to work out.

… so far, scientists use a type of virus, a retrovirus, to insert the genes into the cells’ chromosomes. Retroviruses slip genes into chromosomes at random, sometimes causing mutations that can make normal cells turn into cancers.

One gene used by the Japanese scientists actually is a cancer gene.

The cancer risk means that the resulting stem cells would not be suitable for replacement cells or tissues for patients with diseases, like diabetes, in which their own cells die…

The new discovery was preceded by work in mice. Last year, Dr. Yamanaka published a paper showing that he could add four genes to mouse cells and turn them into mouse embryonic stem cells.

He even completed the ultimate test to show that the resulting stem cells could become any type of mouse cell. He used them to create new mice. Twenty percent of those mice, though, developed cancer, illustrating the risk of using retroviruses and a cancer gene to make cells for replacement parts.

So don’t pop the corks. the debate is far from over as long as people are needlessly suffering and dying from lack of embryonic stem cell research.

And although the White House took credit

 “By avoiding techniques that destroy life, while vigorously supporting alternative approaches, President Bush is encouraging scientific advancement within ethical boundaries.”

the President’s policies have not necessarily helped.

“My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back four or five years,” said James Thomson, who led a team at the University of Wisconsin and who discovered human embryonic stem cells in 1998.

I think Senator Specter said it best:

“I really don’t think anybody ought to take credit in light of the six-year delay we’ve had,” said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the lead Republican sponsor of the bill that Mr. Bush vetoed in July 2006. “My own view is that science ought to be unfettered and that every possible alternative ought to be explored.”

“You’ve got a life-and-death situation here,” Mr. Specter continued, “and if we can find something which is certifiably equivalent to embryonic stem cells, fine. But we are not there yet.”

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