Tuesday, August 23, 2005

"Irrationalist in Chief"

Dr. Leon Kass is President Bush's chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and a leading advocate therefore, of alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, such as the reprogramming methods that have recently been in the news. Here's a recent quote from him:

Since every cell in the body is genetically the same as any other, what distinguishes the liver cell from a brain cell from a heart muscle cell is not the presence or absence of certain genes, but which genes are in fact turned on and functioning, and which ones are silent. And since the process of development and differentiation going forward starts with a cell that could become anything, but specializes to become liver, or brain, or heart — presumably if you could locate the signal that produced that specialization, and run the process in reverse, you could start from liver, or heart or brain or muscle or skin, run the process in reverse and get back to the "stemcellness" of the beginning.

(Link here.)

Now first of all, it's only somewhat disturbing that a key advisor to the president invents a word like "stemcellness". In fairness to Dr. Kass (of whose background I know very little at this point...but I'm guessing he went to Hollywood Upstairs Medical School?), his job as chairman is probably largely dictated by the President (obviously), and is probably charged with publicizing all possible alternatives and lauding the therapeutic "promise" they all have, and not with engaging in intellectual debate about the relative merits of these ideas or the nature of embryonic stem cells and the morals of using them. And he's not even wrong about how every cell in the body contains the same genetic material, and how the main difference between different cell types is which subset of genes are turned on. But it is a pretty huge stretch to think that we can reverse engineer a stem cell from a fully differentiated adult cell. And even if we could (actually, I would speculate this could be possible in some form in the future...but how far off?), what guarantee would there be that it is a perfect replacement for an embryonic stem (ES) cell? Ultimately, you need to test the capabilities of ES cells to have something to compare with. And many of these reprogramming methods require an ES cell to fuse with an adult cell, or to transfer a somatic cell's nucleus to. The common denominator here? At some point, you just need embryonic stem cells. And guess what? They are available! All right, maybe you don't need them if these other ideas prove able enough. But the point is that ES cells are out there, and they are basically a known quantity (compared to these other more fledgling ideas). So why not use them? Are we so sure of when life begins and what is morally correct that we need to make scientists jump through all these hoops to find a loophole? If I had diabetes, I'd be pissed.


Blogger Faye said...

Thanks for your post!
What's the deal anyway in using human egg cells to transfer the nucleus from a somatic cell into......... My son Jason(15) has four sisters who would gladly donate their egg cells, so matching embryonic type stem cells can be genererated for repair/replacement of his damaged neurons. Jason wants to be freed from his prison of paralysis without delay!!!

8:38 PM  
Blogger Kaiser said...

Thanks for the comment faye, and for reading. It looks like there is some good information on your website already about somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which is one way to do this. It's also referred to as "therapeutic cloning" sometimes, so googling that would yeild tons of information, as well. And in the article with the interview with Dr. Kass, he talks about quite a few alternative therapies that are being investigated, including "reprogramming". Hopefully, I'll have another post soon regarding these alternatives from that article, but read it yourself if you can't wait!

10:49 AM  

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