Monday, March 09, 2009

Stem Cells and "The Prestige"

If you haven't seen the remarkable 2006 film The Prestige, quit reading this blog and go rent it, because there's a "spoiler" in the next paragraph.

If you have, you will remember among the final scenes the sight of one hundred tanks of water, each containing the drowned body of a "duplicate" of the magician Angier. Each body was created and destroyed in a matter of minutes during the performance of a magic trick. The fictional form of cinema drives home, as no dry argument can do, the horror of how a man driven by worldly ambition for fame and fortune could bring himself to produce and then kill dozens of human beings.

That scene comes to mind as I am writing this blog early on the morning of March 9. Later today, if all goes according to plan, President Obama will announce the rescinding of President Bush's order restricting federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. According to the New York Times, the President is doing this as part of his pledge to "separate science and politics."

How will increased federal support, by tax money designated by the duly elected Congress of the United States, for research that destroys human beings who under normal circumstances would develop into babies, children, and adults more or less like the rest of us, be a step in the direction of "separating science and politics"? If anyone deserves credit for separating science and politics, it is former President Bush, who, after careful consideration early in his first term, decided to allow limited federal support of embryonic stem-cell research using only existing stem-cell lines, so that no more embryos would be destroyed for the purposes of this research.

That was a long time ago. Since then, science has progressed to the point that cells from the adult body can be made to do nearly everything that embryonic stem cells do, and without the destruction of embryos. According to Yuval Levin, director of the Bioethics and American Democracy program at Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, the number of labs using these non-embryonic "induced pluripotent stem cells" had increased to about 800 by the fall of 2008.

But in the meantime, politicians shanghaied the science for their own purposes. We were showered with TV ads and shows portraying victims of neurological damage such as Michael J. Fox and the late quadriplegic Christopher Reeve as being made to suffer primarily because of Bush's partial ban on embryonic stem-cell funding. Voters in the state of California were persuaded to approve Proposition 71 in 2004, which allowed a $3-billion bond issue designated for human stem-cell research. Despite these efforts and privately funded research in this country and abroad, not a single therapy based on human embryonic stem cells has even reached the stage of clinical trials in operation, according to Levin.

The claim that to allow unrestricted federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research is to separate science from politics is the exact opposite of the truth. Decades ago when the government was smaller, federal funds were treated with a certain amount of deference and respect. Having been forcibly extracted from the entire populace, federal money was held in special regard and used only for causes such as national defense and scientific projects that showed clear and unequivocal promise of furthering the public good.

Not only has science recently shown that embryonic stem cells are probably not the way to go in stem-cell research, the old idea that we would need lots of them to insert into patients for treatment is also becoming passé. More recent studies indicate that molecular biology directed at particular genetic switches will be more effective than the crude injection of stem cells, which tend to form malignancies and other problems that are often worse than the disease they were originally intended to cure.

This is the science that needs to be separated from politics to a greater extent that it is already. Any time you have public funding of science, science tends to become politicized. But it is at least possible for the influence of politics on science to be minimized by a hierarchy of authority. The best people to decide on a tactical level which science should be funded are the scientists themselves, which is why agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health conduct peer reviews of proposals. It is by no means a perfect system, but it is vastly superior to earmarks or other political approaches that channel funds directly to certain projects or institutions regardless of their scientific merit or qualifications. However, scientists cannot always be trusted to do things in keeping with the moral inclinations of the public, and that is why Bush decided the way he did about limiting funding for embryonic stem-cell research, as a part of his strategic outlook on the broad politics of science research. Not everything that can be done should be done, and scientists should not have the last word in all cases over how public money should be spent.

But political causes, once set in motion, tend to take on a life of their own independent of rational thought or scientific progress. There are millions of people out there convinced by politicians that the only thing standing between us and Heaven on earth is Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research.

It looks like President Obama is going to do what he said he would. A lot of people (embryos are people, they're just a lot younger than you and me) will die as a result, and a lot of other people will be disappointed that all the claims of miracle cures don't pan out. And science will get more deeply embroiled in politics than it ever was before.

Sources: The New York Times story on Obama's plans to rescind the Bush rules can be found at Yuval Levin's report "Biotech: What to Expect" is carried in the March 2009 issue of the journal First Things, pp. 17-20.


  1. There is no ban on embryonic stem cell research for President Obama to lift. When Bush provided federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which no President had done before him, he restricted what research that funding could be used for. He did not ban embryonic stem cell research.

  2. ...research that destroys human beings who under normal circumstances would develop into babies...What "normal circumstances" would apply here? The circumstances where embryos created for in-vitro fertilisation are destroyed when excess to requirements, or the circumstances where between 25%-50% of natural conceptions spontaneously abort. Oh, you mean the normal circumstances of a blastocyst embedding itself in a nice warm spot, then drawing resources heavily from the mother for 9 whole months until it's ready to join the world as a fully-baked autonomous agent.

    Nasty, nasty medical researchers.