Thursday, September 21, 2006
The New England Journal of Medicine has a great article (available free) on the politics of stem cell research. It provides a good overview of some of the potential benefits of stem cell research and some of the unknowns about that research that still exist. The article concludes,
On July 19, Bush missed an opportunity to show support for research on cells that do have the potential to differentiate into many different kinds of tissues. His veto thwarted new prospects for advancing embryonic stem-cell research and will result in a terrible waste: tens of thousands of fertilized eggs will be destroyed without a single one being permitted to contribute to our knowledge of cell differentiation. Fortunately, research on embryonic stem cells will proceed in a number of excellent scientific centers in this country, without federal funding and, one might argue, at a pace unfettered by the federal bureaucracy. But the lack of federal support and the political climate do hinder stem-cell research in the United States. A new center in Singapore, for example, has recently attracted gifted American investigators who are fed up with political restrictions on their research. Other countries — such as China, Sweden, and the United Kingdom — are also entering the field.
We really don't know what will ultimately come out of research on embryonic stem cells. It is important to play down promises to the public that the work will produce anything of clinical value in the foreseeable future. We simply don't know how an embryonic stem cell will behave in a human, and we don't know whether human marrow contains a pluripotent stem cell that can transdifferentiate. Equally important, we don't yet know whether research on embryonic stem cells will teach us how to revise the differentiation program of a tissue-specific stem cell, thereby circumventing the need for embryonic cells. Research on stem cells will encounter many twists and turns, but it is an endeavor that is eminently worth pursuing. The delay of medical advances by theological disputes is not in the best interests of the sick and disabled.
Thanks to Jim Tomaszewski for the heads-up on this article!