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A Stem Cell Compromise?

In a Forum essay on April 4, commentator Jesse Reynolds heralded the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) as an advance that could end the stem cell wars, but warns against the extremists on both sides who are more interested in seeing the battle continue than in reaching a sensible solution. He writes, “Advocates of stem cell research are downplaying iPS cells as ‘hype’ after years of routinely exaggerating the potential of embryonic stem cells. Responding to commentators who voice hopes that the stem cell wars could be drawing to a close, these enthusiasts have focused on the shortcomings and early stage of research with iPS cells while ignoring the many remaining uncertainties of embryonic stem cells.”

It surely is hype to maintain that we already have an alternative to human embryonic stem cells for purposes of research and possible therapy. No one yet knows if iPS cells will prove as malleable as embryonic stem cells have already proved to be, while there are serious safety considerations that will need to be resolved before iPS cells could be tried in human beings. All of this Reynolds grants. Why, then, does he tar those who make this claim as “extremists”?

Reynolds then goes on to cite approvingly Kass’s call for a moratorium on hESC research for four or five years to give iPS research a chance to mature and, hopefully, make research on human embryos unnecessary. He writes, “But if iPS does not fulfill its potential, then Kass is implying that he would find cloning for research acceptable, as long reproductive cloning is prohibited.”

If this were actually what Kass said, it might seem to be a viable compromise. Those supporting embryonic stem cell research give up four to five years of potential promise in return for a willingness on the part of opponents to accept cloned embryos for research purposes if iPS research doesn’t fulfill its promise. But what Kass actually said was very different:

Politically as well, this triple-pronged approach is a winner for all sides. Because the latest science has made creating embryos for research unnecessary and inefficient by comparison with reprogramming, we have the chance to put stem cell science on a footing that all citizens can endorse. Indeed, in return for accepting a moratorium on a scientific approach that is not very useful (creation of new embryos for research), scientists could exact large sums in public support for an exciting area of science. With pro-lifers as their biggest allies, they could obtain the research dollars they need – and their supposed enemies would write the biggest checks. Meanwhile, at the very time the latest science has made affronts to human procreation – cloning, but not only cloning – more likely and even imminent, pro-lifers and scientists can come together to ban these practices in America, as they have already been banned in the rest of the civilized world, without implicating the research debate at all.

Clearly, Kass thinks that “the latest science” already shows that it is unnecessary to create embryos for research. This being the case, it’s not clear why he calls for a moratorium, as opposed to an outright ban, at all – unless it’s to give the appearance of a compromise where none exists. Research on both hES and iPS cells should continue until we learn which (if either) is useful in the treatment of disease. That’s not extremist. It’s what’s called for by the science.


Readers respond

Although I am glad to see that my recent column in Bioethics Forum led to a response, I was disheartened that it misrepresented my position. While I asserted that we should consider a moratorium on cloning-based stem cell research, Bonnie Steinbock recasts this as a call for a moratorium on all human embryonic stem cell research.

She writes that I “cite approvingly Kass’s call for a moratorium on hESC research for four or five years.” Yet the part of Kass’s proposal which I cited was a call for a moratorium on the creation of embryos – by any means – specifically for research purposes. Considering that the previous paragraphs in my column discussed the lack of progress on, and additional challenges posed by, cloning-based stem cell research, I believe it was clear that my argument applied to cloning-based work.

In addition, the closing of Ms. Steinbock’s column again implies that I called for all human embryonic stem cell research to end. Noting that I warn against extremists on both sides of the stem cell debates, she argues that “Research on both hES and iPS cells should continue until we learn which (if either) is useful in the treatment of disease. That’s not extremist. It’s what’s called for by the science.” In fact, I explicitly endorsed this very approach: “This is certainly not the time to end embryonic stem cell research.”

The “extremists” I had in mind – and unfortunately they are common on both sides of the unproductive political war over stem cell research – are those who attribute hyperbole and political opportunism only to the other side.

– Jesse Reynolds

Published on: April 18, 2008
Published in: Emerging Biotechnology, Stem Cells

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