"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, November 23, 2007

The stem-cell breakthrough

Like many bloggers, I had planned to write yesterday about all the things I'm grateful for. But the Holy Spirit had other plans. For one thing, I realized that such a post would have been more honest as a description of what I know I should be grateful to God for than of what I actually am grateful to him for. I would have been preaching largely to myself—which would have been more for my own benefit than my readers'. So I decided to keep all that in prayer, limiting my writing to one thing I am sincerely grateful for and that people really do need to know about: the recent breakthrough in stem-cell research.

Now I have not had time to acquaint myself with such technical details of the breakthrough as a layman like myself could comprehend. Nor do I think it important for me to do so in the short term. The question of immediate as well as abiding interest is this: if the new technique holds promise of achieving the goals of embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) without killing embryos, then why not pursue it rather than ESCR? That is a hypothetical question, but by no means an abstract one. The hypothesis is itself testable.

Does the new breakthrough really hold out the promise in question? A comment by Christopher Thomas Scott, the director of Stanford's bioethics center, suggests not:

The news today that scientists have produced human embryonic-like cells by reprogramming skin cells should not overshadow the fact that these exciting result rely on, and will continue to rely on, our understanding of human embryonic stem cells.

The guild of stem cell biology is agnostic to cell type: it does not insist on artificial distinctions among adult, embryonic and now "induced pluripotent" stem cell types. In order to fully utilize our knowledge for future therapies, discoveries from every corner of biology need to be freely shared and fully employed. Some of the genes used by these labs are also present in human embryonic stem cells: a clear example of how one area of cell biology informs another. In another example, one of the scientists, James Thomson, is well-known for his discoveries and work with human embryonic stem cells. Finally, this week's report about cloning monkey cells is a significant step towards developing custom-matched embryonic stem cell lines for research and medicine. Not surprisingly, Dr. Thomson trained at the same Oregon institute that reported the monkey cloning discovery.

The interrelatedness of these important discoveries, and the histories behind them, is testament to why we must freely pursue all avenues of stem cell research, not just some avenues.

Scott seems to be suggesting that researching adult and "induced-pluripotent" stem cells without also doing ESCR would retard, if not altogether preclude, the first two techniques. I don't know whether that's accurate, but I doubt its accuracy because it sounds like propaganda to me. It's as though the bioethicists who favor ESCR cannot, in face of the new breakthrough, think of a philosophical as distinct from a technical way meet the arguments of their opponents. In other words, it's as though the only way they can now defend ESCR is to insist that other, less objectionable forms of stem-cell research actually depend on it. But so far, it doesn't seem that's the consensus of the actual scientists.

So, is the enthusiasm of Fr. Thomas Berg, director of a rather different bioethics center, justified? I hope so, but the questions appears to be scientific. Yet that's what's so significant about the debate over this new breakthrough. The debate is more over the scientific hypothesis of my question than over the implied ethical conclusion. That's because, if it is really does turn out that there's no real need to kill embryos for the sake of therapeutically significant research, then the advocates of ESCR have lost their main argument. That very fact about the debate itself is an argument in favor of the Church teaching that Fr. Berg upholds. So if scientists with no philosophical axe to grind end up agreeing that ESCR is not essential for achieving the goals of stem-cell research generally, the argument is indeed over.
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