Thursday, February 01, 2007

IC Column: Stem Cells Done Right

Stem cells done right

Patrick Beeman

Posted: 1/29/07

Let's face it; I'm a bit of a nerd. I don't like to party. In fact, I don't party at all because if I did, I'd be the guy alone in the corner the entire time my friends and I were mooching free drinks and snacks from some poor soul we'd never met.

When I drink, I prefer to do so "Inklings-style," as part of good, intellectual conversation (The Inklings were a group of scholars, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who met weekly at a pub to read their unpublished works and do other uniquely Oxonian things). And I won't drink anything that might be sold at a NASCAR event, but that's another story.

In fact, I'm more comfortable with a pint of Guinness draught and Dostoyevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" than with a pitcher of Miller-Lite and a table of rowdy friends. If only more pubs were set up for the kind of high-adventure that is the intellectual life. Alas. But that's what coffee shops are for.

But even at Beaners, you'd spy me translating Saint Augustine's "Confessions" from Latin, and drinking a "skinny" latte. You might even catch me adjusting my glasses by pressing finger or thumb to the bridge of my nose. So it's official, I'm kind of nerdy, which explains why every Wednesday when I receive the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, I drop what I'm doing and read it from cover to cover. OK, maybe I just read the headlines and two or three articles of interest.

At any rate, one recent issue sported an exciting piece on stem cell research, which I, as a Catholic medical student, am all for. Interest piqued? Read on.

Stem cells are great. They have the uncanny ability to differentiate into many different cell types. And without a doubt, they display potential in treating an obscenely long list of diseases including breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Syndrome (the "bubble-boy disease"). This is precisely why we need to continue pouring money into researching them. Who knows what cures lie on the horizon?

But notice how I didn't us the word "embryonic?" Embryonic stem cell research is quite another thing, for that requires destroying the embryo whose cells are harvested - that's just downright evil.

The aforementioned JAMA article cites examples of adult stem cells, which have shown promise in turning into the type of cell that is defective in diabetes. And then we read, "many scientists believe the best potential lies in embryonic stem cells." Why?

Does anyone remember the debacle in South Korea when Hwang Woo-Suk reported in the world's most prestigious scientific journal, "Science," that he had generated a human stem cell line from a cloned human embryo only to have to retract - to his great shame and to that of the much ballyhooing scientific community - this fabrication in June 2005? Or does anyone recall that many embryonic stem cells produce teratomas (a type of tumor containing many different types of tissue such as hair, teeth, etc.)? That is, embryonic stem cells produce cancer and those treated with them can die of fatal tumors.

In the words of Maureen Condic, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah's medical school, reporting in last month's "First Things," "The assertion that embryonic stem cells in the laboratory can be induced to form all the cells comprising the mature human body has been repeated so often that it seems incontrovertibly true. What is missing from this assertion remains the simple fact that there is essentially no scientific evidence supporting it." How's that for succinct?

The fact is that channeling billions of dollars of public monies into some scientific will-o'-the-wisp seems ludicrous when these resources could be allocated to funding already promising and uncontroversial research into adult stem cells. Why not cast down the scientific hubris and search for cures that don't require adopting the moral principles of the Third Reich? Our society can only be better for taking the moral high road by not treating human persons like products for technological manipulation.

Certainly no one wants our world to resemble Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," in which, among other perverse things, the very word "mother" becomes profanity. Yet, we're on the brink. And the solution is simple: we can start by keeping in mind the words of the great philosopher Dr. Seuss, who observed, "a person is a person no matter how small." That includes embryos.
© Copyright 2007 Independent Collegian (

1 comment:

  1. Keep up the good work. That Dr. Suess quote is one I haven't heard before. Very appropriate.