Monday, July 24, 2006

Stem cells

When he's not making a fool of himself, GWB is actually running the only superpower of the world, which is also the world's biggest contributor to scientific research. And in doing his job, he has recently vetoed a bill that was already approved by the Senate and would have made federal funds available for a wider spectrum of stem cell research. In 2001, Bush backed a limited funding package for research, saying that the research should proceed with careful steps. Now he has decided that that is as far as he is willing to go, thus giving in to the ones among his supporters who loudly ask for a total ban.

The "debate" is purely a religious one, and has nothing to do with science as such. The credibility of stem cell research received a blow when some of the work by Hwang Woo-suk was shown to be fake, but for the scientific community this only tells that we are not as far as we thought we were in using this technology; not that the field as such couldn't eventually deliver those advances.

Progress is slow and there are still many obstacles before we can say that we can control stem cells and use them for therapeutic purposes. But it's progressing and the potential returns are huge: diabetes, Parkinson's, spinal injuries, brain damage... diseases and conditions that millions and millions of people suffer from, could possibly be cured or at least alleviated by stem cell therapies. As a diabetic myself, I'd gladly see the day when I no longer need to take about a hundred bloodtests each month and give the same amount of injections of insulin - day after day, while facing the risk of long-term effects of run-amok blood sugar: blindness, leg amputation, heart and kidney failure etc. Stem cells could be converted into insulin-producing beta-cells and implanted back to my pancreas or liver, and the implanted cells could take over the job from the ones that were lost as a result of some autoimmune over-reacting by my white cells.

Now, some of the right-wing conservative governments in Europe are following in GWB's footsteps, by insisting that European funds should not be used for stem cell research. This comes as the EU prepares the new, 7th framework funding programme for research. This programme would give almost 55 billion euros for research during 2007-2011. As stem cell research is complicated, expensive and requires collaboration and large units, FP7 can be said to be tailor-made for such fields of research.

Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Malta are the ones opposing. Apart from Germany they are small and have very little influence (politically or scientifically, for that matter), and they are currently only one vote above the blocking minority in the council. Considering that in most countries the conservative governments hold their office with a slender majority, and in those governments and parties stem cell research is opposed by only some of the members, it would be unfair and wrong to block funding because this minority doesn't like some of it.

What is their problem with stem cells? Well, one of the sources of human stem cell lines that are used is to take them from human embryos, usually those that are a "sideproduct" of fertility treatment, artificial insemination, that is. As only one fertilized egg that has started to develope is planted to the prospective mother's womb, the rest are destroyed. Or, they could be used to harvest stem cells for research purposes. We are talking about embryoes that are only a few days old, not growing babies on petri dishes and then harvesting their organs. Still, the opposition says, humans are humans from the word go, from the moment of insemination and thus using these embryos is wrong. They are also afraid that the technology will be used for cloning humans, and some are even of the opinion that deriving new stem cells from the existing lines is too close to cloning already and should be stopped.

This view, held by many on the religious right, including some babtists, evangelical christians and catholics, is based on a doctrine that was originally formed in need to find motivations to ban abortion. Rather than trying to determine when in gestation the embryo becomes a baby, or starts to possess a soul, they said it happens already at conception. Thus was two birds with one stone, as they could ban all contraception as well. It is not based on any scientific evidence of human development, it's basis is in the power politics of societal control that these churches wield. In the grand scheme of things, I'd have thought that the rights of, and compassion for those who suffer from these illnesses would be greater than the principled support for the human rights of what is essentially just a piece of waste tissue. Pro life my ***.

Well, I'm sure FP7 will go through without restrictions. I'm sure one of the small countries will back down, and then the coalition will fall. With so much discussion about the competitiveness of Europe and how it's future success lies in its innovation sector and research, it would be weird if it would tie its hands based on some random religious arguments. As the US is blocking it's progress by the Bush-imposed limitations and Asian research is still recovering from the Woo-suk tragedy, this would be a golden moment to make an investment to the future and allow the European research facilities to take world lead in this sector. There are frustrated scientists facing career dead ends in US and Asia, who could be attracted to Europe by providing a more friendly environment to research. It's time to take steps forward, not back.

Stephen Hawking commented on the issue in today's Independent. In an uncharacteristically strong statement he attacks Bush and the leaders of the 8 states and says that using embryonic stem cells is morally equivalent to using the heart of a victim of road accident as a transplant. Well said, I hope his opinion (which can be seen just as personally motivated as mine, as he suffers from a motor neuron disease that could potentially be treated with stem cells) will be weighty enough to break the "reactionary" coalition.

(Pic: Uni of Utah)

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