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Health

The Passion Driving Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJanuary 17, 2006 8:45 PM

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I've been going on and on lately about the adult stem cell partisans and what's wrong with their arguments. But underlying those arguments, I suspect, is something deeper. These advocates just don't seem to share the scientific mindset when it comes to embryonic stem cell research. Some of them, I speculate, may not even fully grasp why scientists want to see this research get done in the first place. This reflection arose as I was reading Matt Nisbet's blog, which directed me to a Washington Postcommentary by a Harvard stem cell scientist that I would otherwise have missed. The piece is really about peer review, but I couldn't help singling out this quotation in particular:

Stem cells have proved even more captivating than we could have imagined, and understanding the process by which a stem cell progressively differentiates into a specialized cell such as a neuron or a pancreas beta cell is perhaps the most compelling biology question for our generation.

This passage epitomizes what the adult stem cell promoters are missing about the drive behind embryonic stem cell research. It's not just about cures, but rather about enlarging our knowledge about a fascinating area of developmental biology. It's about scientific curiosity, passion, an urge for discovery.

True, scientists think that cures will result from embryonic stem cell research somewhere down the road. And accordingly, they've allowed the research to be sold to the public in this manner (not without some regrets, I'm sure). But when it comes to embryonic stem cell research, many scientists are on an intellectual quest for understanding--for a comprehension of nothing less than how embryonic stem cells actually set in motion the creation of the body in the first place. And studying adult stem cells alone, although these cells may be interesting, will never ever get them there. Period.

But along come the adult stem cell promoters, who have a very different agenda. In the main, they want restrictions on research. The research they don't like has been sold by the media, by politicians, and by disease advocates on the basis of a promise of cures for diseases. So the adult stem cell cheerleaders start attacking the premise that's most salient to them: the promise of cures. In the process, opportunistically, they wield scientific-sounding arguments, albeit very dubious ones. They say, we don't need embryonic stem cell research to find cures because adult stem cells are showing great results, yada yada yada.

The scientists find this simply baffling--because, of course, the scientists aren't merely disease advocates. They are intellectual explorers as well. So not only do they reject the notion that adult stem cells are somehow better than embryonic ones. Because the scientists are thinking in terms of how to increase our understanding, the concept of a certain type of stem cell research being "better" than another doesn't even make sense to them in the first place. It's mindboggling. It's entirely alien.

What we really seem to be facing here, then, is a huge disconnect between researchers, disease advocates, and the anti-research crowd. And of course the media, a woefully imperfect translator, doesn't help matters.

In this context, what we need is for everyone to be honest about their goals and expectations--and not seek to corral science in defense of a particular agenda that it can't support. Unfortunately, that's what's happened with the adult stem cell advocates. They are emphatically not the only guilty party here, though. The disease advocates have a strong incentive to hype the potential for cures, as do the politicians who support them.

However, I'm much more disturbed by the adult stem cell partisans, for the following reason. Embryonic stem cell research can certainly be hyped, but there's no doubt that it's inherently promising. So there's a kernel of truth to the pro-cures perspective. By contrast, the anti-research notion that scientists should simply focus only on adult stem cells is not just argumentatively weak, but also seems to simply ignore or devalue the basic scientific quest for understanding. And that troubles me a very great deal indeed.

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