Getting Real on Stem Cells

The embryo stem cell (ESC) hype continues to bubble along, with a seeming avalanche of support from the media and many of our ruling elites. Adult stem cells (ASCs) continue to be ignored, despite their great success, while ESCs are promoted furiously.

Not many voices are heard seeking to quell the hype, but a few can be found on occasion. Writing in today’s Age (September 4, 2006), Nicholas Tonti-Filippini has a helpful article entitled, “Ignore the hype in the cloning debate”.

In it he seeks to put some reason and balance back into the debate. He begins by noting some basic differences between the two types of cells: “Cultured stem cells (whether taken from the body or embryonic) have the capacity for enormous benefit if their growth and differentiation can be controlled, but they also have significant capacity for harm if that growth and differentiation is not controlled and they then cause disease. Embryonic stem cells are less controllable. There have already been some deaths of people who received stem cells that then proliferated in an uncontrolled way.”

Because of this and other reasons, there seems to be much greater promise with ASCs: “Scientific focus is thus shifting towards stimulating activity in the dormant natural stem cells that are already in situ in a person’s body.

Those cells are already of the right progenitor cell type. They are, of course, compatible, being the patient’s own cells. They require no culturing and thus have none of the problems associated with cell cultures. It appears when stimulated they are likely to develop cells of the right type with the desired cell products and capacity to form the right structures.”

There are other sorts of problems associated with ESCs. “A major area of concern is that stem cell lines, once created, are not subject to regulation in Australia because they are not considered human tissue and the couple whose embryos were the source lose all control once the stem cells are harvested. There is nothing to stop a private IVF service investing in and sharing its embryonic stem cell lines with, for instance, a cosmetic company to make rejuvenating face creams.”

And to be effective as a therapy, many embryos would be required to produce the desired amount of stem cells. “Cloned embryos also involve the problem of obtaining large quantities of eggs and it is unlikely that women would be volunteering themselves for surgical harvesting of eggs. It was this problem that seemed to trigger the events that exposed fraud at the Seoul University human cloning program. They were apparently obtaining human eggs for their cloning experiments from young women research staff.”

(Indeed, former Deputy Leader John Anderson is quoted in today’s news media, warning that women may be tempted to sell their embryos for the financial benefits at offer. While Australia seems to have tighter regulations on this sort of thing than say, America, it is not at all improbable that a black market of egg selling may arise here.)

Tonti-Filippini also cautions us about the possibilities of human/animal hybrids: “The lack of available human eggs has also led to some teams experimenting with human cloning using animal eggs. Pig and cow eggs have been used. The practice is unlawful in Australia, but has been recommended by the Lockhart review. The ethical problem is that it involves crossing a cultural and moral barrier between human and animal reproduction.”

He is worried about the Lockhart committee as well, the body appointed to report to Parliament about future directions in stem cell research. “Lockhart’s adventurism did not establish a scientific necessity to create human embryos for research purposes, nor why community values should be set aside. Lockhart supports formation of human-animal hybrid embryos, either by fertilisation between human and animal gametes or by human nuclear transfer to an animal ovum. The committee also supported forming embryos by using genetic material from more than one person.”

The committee was really a stacked deck, with vested interests calling the shots: “The Lockhart inquiry shows the error in appointing a committee on the basis that they support a technology, rather than on the basis of representing community interests. Victoria’s Loane Skene, for instance, belongs to an international stem cell lobby group.”

He continues, “It was an odd committee, a creature of the Council of Australian Governments in which each of the state premiers and the Prime Minister were able to nominate candidates, and no one applied criteria for balance and representation of either expertise or community interests in the overall composition.”

All in all, a case of bad science and bad decision-making. Those pushing an agenda have been allowed to dictate the terms of this debate, with little concern for the interests of the wider community, or the way science is being abused and misused.

It is a battle being waged on numerous fronts, and we need to enter into all of them. This article offers some of the ammunition needed for such a task.

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One Reply to “Getting Real on Stem Cells”

  1. Dear Bill,
    As always you have written a measured article on this current subject. I just hope that more moderate articles like this one get published rather than the many we are hearing from in the media which always seem to have a bias towards ESC research.

    Nola Drum

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