Republican Pandering to Stem Cell Researchers

A couple times while driving down Interstate 270, passing through Gaithersburg (home of NIST where Latter-day Saint and DNA scientist John Butler works), Rockville (home to dozens of biomedical reseach companies such as Celera Genomics, and historian and scientist Greg Prince‘s Virion Systems), and Bethesda (home to NIH), I’ve heard the following radio ad:

They’re the original mavericks. Leaders. Reformers. Fighting for real change. John McCain will lead his Congressional allies to improve America’s health.

STEM CELL RESEARCH to unlock the mystery of cancer, diabetes, heart disease.
STEM CELL RESEARCH to help free families from the fear and devastation of illness.
STEM CELL RESEARCH to help doctors repair spinal cord damage, knee injuries, serious burns.
STEM CELL RESEACH to help stroke victims.

And, John McCain and his Congressional allies will invest millions more in new NIH medical research to prevent disease. Medical breakthroughs to help you get better, faster. Change is coming. McCain-Palin and Congressional allies. The leadership and experience to really change Washington and improve your health. Paid for by McCain-Palin 2008 and the Republican National Committee.

It raises a couple of questions: Why are the Republicans running on John Edwards’ platform? And on what are they promising voters in other parts of the country that they’ll spend “millions” (as in thousands of millions, known to non-mavericks as “billions”)?

There are a lot of opinions, hopes and fears regarding stem cells. Some believe that a host of terrible, debilitating diseases and injuries will be cured, and that that is worth any foreseen cost. Others hope that developments in deprogramming adult cells into a multipotent state will give all the hypothetical benefits of embryonic stem cells without the ethical issues.  My fear is that stem cell therapy will be replaced by progenitor cell therapy.

I believe it will be found that stem cells that are a completely blank slate will not be the most effective to transplant; they won’t just conform and develop in desired directions according to where they are implanted. What will be better, and for some purposes the only thing that will work, will be to harvest cells at an intermediate stage of differentiation, cells that will produce neurons but not insulin-producing islets, or vice versa. See for example this paper last year out of the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair, “Transplanted neural progenitor cells survive and differentiate but achieve limited functional recovery in the lesioned adult rat spinal cord,” Regen. Med. 2007 Nov;2(6):929-45:

To determine the extent to which SCNPCs [spinal cord neural progenitor cells] may contribute to spinal cord repair SCNPCs isolated from rat fetal spinal cord were expanded ex vivo and transplanted into the adult rat spinal cord after a dorsal column crush lesion.

[. . .]

SCNPCs were harvested from the spinal cord embryonic day 14 (E14) Fischer 344 rat (Harlan) embryos. The spinal cord from the level of the hindbrain to the forelimb was removed from surrounding connective tissue.

The “clumps of cells” used for this experiment had brains, limbs, and spinal cords that were removed so that their cells could be transplanted into adult rats. From these two links (first, second), it seems that a 14-day-old rat embryo is at an equivalent stage of neural development with a human embryo seven weeks post conception, a point for the human at the cusp of being a fetus, with all organs present in an early stage of formation. The only place such things can be created is inside a mother’s womb.  We may be down the road to the day that aborting a two-month-old embryo (with healthy, vital tissue, not poisoned) will be regarded as an act of civic virtue on a par with organ donation. That’s my fear.

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

13 thoughts on “Republican Pandering to Stem Cell Researchers

  1. John, a comment from a complete non-scientist: I thought the controversy over stem cells was starting to fade because we don’t need to kill embryos anymore. I went to Wikipedia and read the entry there (understanding about half of it). But at the end there was the following timeline:

    # January 2007 – Scientists at Wake Forest University led by Dr. Anthony Atala and Harvard University report discovery of a new type of stem cell in amniotic fluid.[5] This may potentially provide an alternative to embryonic stem cells for use in research and therapy.[36]
    # June 2007 – Research reported by three different groups shows that normal skin cells can be reprogrammed to an embryonic state in mice.[37] In the same month, scientist Shoukhrat Mitalipov reports the first successful creation of a primate stem cell line through somatic cell nuclear transfer[38]
    # October 2007 – Mario Capecchi, Martin Evans, and Oliver Smithies win the 2007 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their work on embryonic stem cells from mice using gene targeting strategies producing genetically engineered mice (known as knockout mice) for gene research.[39]
    # November 2007 – Human Induced pluripotent stem cells: Two similar papers released by their respective journals prior to formal publication: in Cell by Kazutoshi Takahashi and Shinya Yamanaka, “Induction of Pluripotent Stem Cells from Adult Human Fibroblasts by Defined Factors”, and in Science by Junying Yu, et al., from the research group of James Thomson, “Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Lines Derived from Human Somatic Cells”: pluripotent stem cells generated from mature human fibroblasts. It is possible now to produce a stem cell from almost any other human cell instead of using embryos as needed previously, albeit the risk of tumorigenesis due to c-myc and retroviral gene transfer remains to be determined.
    # January 2008 – Human embryonic stem cell lines were generated without destruction of the embryo[40]

    To sum up: isn’t stem cell research less controversial if we are able to do this without destroying embryos?

  2. Republicans aren’t pandering to stem cell researchers, they’re pandering to the center, which likes stem cell research.

    You understand you aren’t getting a Republican like the one you’ve had for the past eight years when it comes to the Christian Right, right? He’s telling you what you want to hear, he doesn’t care about abortion, stem cell research or gay marriage. Those are only big ticket items to him for another month while he tries to get your vote.

  3. Geoff B., a replacement of embryonic stem cells with adult stem cells is the hope of many. Even if adult stem cells work out, then we approach cloning concerns. And if my fear outlined above is valid, then we will do with adult stem cells what we would do with the embryonic stem cells: implant a half dozen in a woman’s uterus, and harvest the multipotent progenitor cells two months later.

    jjohnsen, I think you are right that John McCain doesn’t care about the Christian right any more than he did eight years ago, and that Republicans are promising to cure cancer and make the lame walk in order to appeal to the center. However, listening to the promise to spend millions more on NIH research while I drove by Bethesda, I thought that part of the ad seemed narrowly targeted to the personal interest of those who would like some of those millions to show up in their paychecks and contracts. This was on a radio station (WTOP) where defense contractors like Northrup Grumman also advertise.

  4. I’ll add that the “STEM CELL RESEARCH to heal all that ails us” litany struck me as rather Bethesda-centric, even before it reached the “spend millions more on the NIH” part. I wonder in which states this ad is playing.

  5. John Mansfield: I’m having a hard time understanding what this post is about. McCain’s science policies? Stem cell research? NIH funding? Pandering?

    As such, it’s difficult to write a response that doesn’t feel like a threadjack. With that in mind…

    McCain’s NIH funding promises are weak and would likely hurt the NIH more than he understands. He wants to fund targeted research (the buzzword is “translational”), which sounds nice politically but doesn’t always work scientifically.

    I can understand your fears about aborting fetuses to harvest tissue—but what does that have to do with embryonic stem cell research? One doesn’t have to lead to the other.

    The cost:benefit ratio for NIH funding was calculated by a joint congressional committee (in the 90s) to be about 1:1000. That means we saved $1000 for every $1 invested. And that doesn’t even take into account quality of life.

  6. Geoff B: Let’s look at embryonic stem cells this way: there are a bunch of stem cell scientists competing with each other for the next Big Breakthrough; they’re all fairly smart people, especially when it comes to their field; despite many political obstacles, nearly all still want to work on embryonic stem cells. Why? Why would they waste their time and effort and very limited resources studying something that isn’t even necessary, thus giving their “adult stem cells only” competitors a huge advantage?

    As to whether the technique developed by Chung et al will be useful, only time will tell. But I’ll point out: they took cells from an embryo. I can’t imagine anyone taking the remaining embryo and implanting it. So while their technique doesn’t destroy the embryo outright, it certainly marks it for disposal (or perpetual cold-storage).

  7. I did a series on this a while back. It turns out there is a perfectly viable way to jerry rig Human eggs to that they won’t produce a viable embryo but will produce stem cells. The problem of harvesting eggs is still tricky, but it sidesteps the whole destroying embryo theory. You can read about it here and here.

  8. BrianJ, true, I started with complaining about a political ad, and then pursued a tangent about something that worries me. Feel free to do likewise! I am not knocking the NIH, just mocking the mavericks who pander as well as all the politicians. However, that 1:1000 cost:benefit ratio sounds a bit high. The NIH annual budget is $28 billion. The U.S. GDP is $14 trillion, and the world GDP is $55 trillion. I don’t think NIH has provided anywhere close to half the world’s GDP.

  9. Doc, thanks for the links to your essays. Very worth reading. Do you think there is anything to my fear about progenitor cells being harvested from aborted fetuses? On your web site I followed a link regarding implantation of human neural progenitor cells in diseased rats. Was the source for those human progenitor cells similar to the source of the rat progenitor cells mentioned in my post?

  10. John M, yeah, my numbers are probably off (and I should be more careful). It’s been a while since I read the cost:benefit reports. I think I was actually remembering the estimate if quality of life were factored in (which, admittedly, is impossible to measure). The “hard” estimate looks more like 15 to 20-fold ROI. (http://www.laskerfoundation.org/advocacy/pdf/exceptional.pdf)

    (And now I see how easy it is for politicians to “misspeak”. Thanks for calling me out!)

  11. John,
    The nucleii they used was taken from so-called “Adult stem cells” in the skin, not from the fetus, that is precisely what made the feat so remarkable. They used regular skin cells and Rat egg cells to clone rats, bypassing the embryos altogether. They did clone, which of course, has its own ethical dilemmas.

  12. I think I misunderstood your reference. The neural progenitor cells may well have been fetal in origin. I am uncertain which link you are referring to. Was it one of the computer generated links wordpress adds to the end?

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