A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Missing Inaction

Where did they go? You must remember them! A few years ago, they were everywhere. Celebrities spoke of them in the hushed and rapturous tones usually reserved for pyramid power or acupuncture. There was hardly a thought-manager who neglected to tell us of the wonders they would bring. We can "resist the onslaught of time’s vulture." They would provide "answers that have so long been beyond our grasp." They constituted "one of the most promising areas of research."

Troglodytes and religious fundamentalists raised barriers that would result in patients "suffer[ing] needlessly" and "put many critical future advances in medicine beyond the reach of patients in the United States."

Yes, it's good ol' Human Embryonic Stem Cells, that were gonna cure Parkinson's, Alzheimers, and all the rest. That's if anyone could get past that bodily rejection thingie.Those who were opposed to grinding up embryos to make their bread were ridiculed as "anti-science" and the opposition of the Church was called, as was her earlier opposition to eugenics, another episode in the "war of religion on science."

I wonder if they would have also called those opposed to Nazi experimentation on Jews "anti-science"? Yes, I know. Godwin's Law and all that. But the point is that not every instance in which people put on white lab coats is quite the same.

Now, the only thing being opposed was killing human embryos in order to obtain stem cells to experiment with. No one was objecting to the use of non-human embryonic stem cells or of human adult stem cells (like bone marrow). And the usual course of research had been to work on animal models before going on to humans, so a few folks were bemused by the rush at that early stage to jump directly to the human subject. It's not as if benign therapies were going to burst fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

Well, science, as it often does, surprised the activists and in 2007 a Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka discovered how to "regress" ordinary cells to stem cell status ("induced pluripotent stem cells"). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for this in 2012. There is an obvious benefit in that tissues can be developed in this way from a patient's own cells, thus bypassing the rejection problem. And you didn't have to kill anyone to get them.

For a while, activists pooh-poohed regressed cells and claimed they were somehow not as good as embryonic stem cells. It was almost as if the goal was not scientific discovery but simply to use embryonic cells, period. When necessary, they touted results achieved with "induced pluripotent stem cells" as simply "stem cells" so they could chide those who had opposed the use of embryonic stem cells. See? THEY would have prevented this beneficial result! Meanwhile, cases like this one raised caution flags over the use of embryonic stem cells. Such stem cells are programmed to proliferate, and the risk that they will result in runaway tumors is quite real.

Now, in a paper in Nature Biotechnology, Choi (et the usual al.) finds that induced and embryonic stem cells "are molecularly and functionally equivalent and cannot be distinguished by a consistent gene expression signature."

As time passed and induced stem cells became the preferred research material, noise about stem cell research has quietly faded from the news-smog. It's almost as if the point had always been to find a reason to use embryos.


  1. The "we have to double down or all the wrong we've done will be for nothing" idea shows up a lot in Japanese fiction, I can't imagine why. They usually have the sense to have it be a rationalization used by the villains, to humanize them without whitewashing them. (Speaking of, if you don't want to make the Mengele comparisons, because Godwin's Law, just say "Unit 731".)

    Incidentally, the technical, medical term for the "runaway" growths embryonic stem cells can cause, is "teratoma". Which is Greek for "monster tumor".

  2. "It's almost as if the point had always been to find a reason to use embryos." Exactly. I still have some 3rd or more generation blue diaper baby friends who think accusations of bias in the media are signs of desperation or mental imbalance. Yet here we have a case that's not disputable on the facts: One side, which claimed that human embryonic stem cell research was immoral in any event but also unnecessary and dangerous, were painted as reactionary anti-science bigots willing to let untold millions suffer and die because of their medieval (ha!) beliefs. The other side were the brave and noble, Moving Science(tm) Forward over the irrational opposition of religious fanatics.

    When it turns out the troglodytes were right *about the science*, media silence falls, as you observe. The wrong people cannot be right.

  3. One more thing: the direction of all this was clear from the beginning - if embryonic stem cells turned out to be a great boon, yet suffered from immune system rejection, then the forward-marching of science would require - require! - therapeutic cloning. Then, heck, why mess with the stem cells when you could just grow the organs? You don't want people to suffer and die, do you?

  4. Meaning growing the clones until the desired organs are harvest ready, The Island style.

    Man, having trouble completing a thought this bright a.m.

  5. It's almost as if the point had always been to find a reason to use embryos.

    The whole point was to shift people's moral intuitions towards a more utilitarian view of the value of unborn human life, which would have the result of neutralizing any principled objections to other things like abortion. Embryonic stem cell research provided a perfect opportunity to do that, because it promised miracle cures to suffering people, but only if you're willing to destroy human embryos to get them. That was the bargain being offered: "Give up any view that embryos have intrinsic value as human beings, and all your ills will be healed."

    For many pro-choice advocates, the whole idea that unborn humans have the same intrinsic value as any other human being is just religious superstition. (On another forum, I encountered an interlocutor who honestly thought that there weren't any non-religious arguments against abortion, and was surprised to learn that there are.) So, not surprisingly, they will use any issue that might be able to pull people away from this "superstitious" belief that unborn humans have the same value as any other person. Again, embryonic stem cell research was the perfect issue to accomplish that objective, because it held out an almost irresistible temptation: miracle cures for suffering people.

    And what kind of heartless monster would deny suffering people treatment that could save their lives just for sake of some superstition? That was the question in the liberal activist's mind on this issue; and advocating for the use of embryonic stem cells, in their minds, seemed like the perfect opportunity to destroy that superstition. Only problem is, contrary to what the liberal activist has convinced himself to believe, whether the intrinsic value of unborn human life is just a "superstition" is precisely what is at issue.

  6. And, related to our inestimable host's observations regarding the VW pollution controversy a month or so ago, the beneficiaries are again hypothetical while actual human beings are actually being killed.

  7. And, related to our inestimable host's observations regarding the VW pollution controversy a month or so ago, the beneficiaries are again hypothetical while actual human beings are actually being killed.

  8. some ppl just really really badly want embryos to not be new human beings and will do anything it seems to disabuse themselves of the facts of reality.

  9. "It's almost as if the point had always been to find a reason to use embryos."

    I think it was more that once anybody raised an objection specifically rooted in classical morality, the point was to never admit that such an objection could have merit of any kind, since that might suggest that traditional religious morality was right and relevant.

    If for some reason nobody had ever religiously objected to eSC research, nobody would ever have protested switching to ipSCs once their superiority became obvious. But admitting that people you dislike are right about anything is one of the hardest human things to do, and people will go to amazing lengths to avoid it.


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