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The embryonic full-court press is on, fielding an all-star team. Injured and sick celebrities like Christopher Reeve, journalists such as Morton Kondracke (whose wife Milly has late-stage Parkinson’s disease), and prominent politicians like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, and former Florida Sen. Connie Mack are all demanding that the ban on federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research be lifted.
Nancy Reagan: Media-Annointed Stem Cell Expert
Anybody with the least conservative credentials who favors lifting the ban gets splashed onto Page One. Most recently this includes Nancy Reagan, as if being a conservative president’s wife makes someone an authority in issues deeply involving ethics and biology. What makes them authorities, of course, is that they favor lifting the ban.
To see just how bad the distortions have become in this new push, look no further than Newsweek’s July 9 issue, which presents the entire argument on the cover. "The Stem Cell Wars," declare the boldest words. "Embryo Research vs. Pro-Life Politics: There’s Hope for Alzheimer’s, Heart Disease, Parkinson’s and Diabetes. But Will Bush Cut Off the Money?"
Yet, (A) the money has been cut off since 1996, well before Bush became president; (B) when the media aren’t portraying all those who support keeping the ban as fanatical pro-lifers, they’re filling their pages with testimonials from abortion opponents calling for an end to the ban; and (C) even without federal funds, nay even without embryonic cells, stem-cell research has made tremendous strides toward bringing hope to persons with the very diseases Newsweek’s cover lists, along with many others.
Focus in on the third anomaly. Why aren’t we hearing about this?
Simple: It’s scientific ignorance, with a dollop of disinformation tossed in for good measure. Advances in tissue-regeneration research are coming fast and furious because of something either ignored or pooh-poohed by embryonic-cell advocates — non-embryonic stem cells.
Scientists are finding such stem cells in tissues throughout the body, then converting them into an incredible array of mature cells with the ability to combat a vast number of devastating diseases and injuries.
Yet across the board, proponents of lifting the embryonic-cell research ban either are ignorant or pretend to be ignorant of the tremendous advances in non-embryonic stem cell research. Often they fail even to recognize that there are stem cells that are not embryonic. (Some of these are properly called "adult stem cells," whereas others such as those from umbilical cords resist the "adult" nomenclature. Regardless, the only valid distinction regarding the current debate is between embryonic and non-embryonic.)
Thus the title of Connie Mack’s June 19 Wall Street Journal op-ed: "I’m Pro-Life — And in Favor of Stem Cell Research" is only the contradiction it aims to be if you ignore non-embryonic stem cells.
Yet even as his commentary appeared, the New Scientist was reporting that researchers have removed stem cells from adult human hair follicles and converted them into skin grafts for victims of severe burns and ulcerated wounds.
There might be enough stem cells here to supply researchers for 10 years!
In other developments over the past two years:
Time and again, scientists involved in non-embryonic-stem-cell work, including even some who say they support lifting the funding ban, have commented that one of the important results of their and other’s findings is that they would bypass the emotion-charged embryonic-tissue debate.
Yet the disinformation piles on like a collapsing slag heap, to where it’s utterly conflicting.
Thus William Safire, in his July 5 column stating, "I head a foundation that supports research in brain science, neuro-immunology and immuno-imaging," also says, "scientists may find, in time, that stem cells can be developed from adult cells rather than blastocysts [embryonic cells]."
It seems the foundation needs a new head, one with a bit of a science background.
You don’t "develop" an adult stem cell. Like blastocysts, they’re always there. The only scientific discussion is whether such cells are as readily harvested and converted into other types of cells as are embryonic ones.
And if it’s harvesting you’re talking about, nothing will ever compete with the non-embyronic stem cells removed from umbilical cords and placentas from babies born alive.
Umbilical cords: A virtually inexhaustable supply of stem cells
Companies like Viacell, Inc. of Boston have been extracting stem cells from human umbilical cords for years now. Recently New Jersey-based Anthrogenesis Corp. announced it had been able to collect 10 times as many stem cells from a single post-birth placenta as have been gathered from any other single source. "These are the same type of cells used in fetal development, and we capture what’s left in placenta and umbilical cords," Cynthia Fisher, founder of Viacell, Inc. and its subsidiary, Viacord, Inc., told me.
Each year, over four million umbilical cords are simply discarded. Connected together, they would stretch from New York to Houston.
But such information seems to be more closely guarded than Britain’s Crown Jewels.
Consider the stem-cell report the National Institutes of Health just released.
NIH has long pushed for embryonic research funding, so it would be rather strange if it didn’t take this opportunity to do so as well.
Yet even the report admits: "Published scientific papers indicated that adult stem cells have been identified in brain, bone marrow, peripheral blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscle, epithelia of the skin and digestive system, cornea, dental pulp of the tooth, retina, liver, and pancreas."
Essentially, the places where stem cells have not been found are those where scientists haven’t looked.
So instead the report falls back on a mass of mush words like "it may be," and "it appears," along with such worthless assertions that: "It has not been demonstrated that one adult stem cell can be directed to develop into any cell type of the body." That’s absolutely true. It’s also absolutely true of embryonic cells, but don’t expect to read that in the report.
Even were it to turn out that embryonic cells have no advantage over non-embryonic ones, shouldn’t pragmatism dictate that such research be given an equal chance? (The word "equal" is important, because private labs continue to legally conduct embryonic-cell research.) After all, wouldn’t virtually any pro-lifer admit that the possibility of killing innocent children shouldn’t preclude an air strike against enemy strongholds?
Yet perhaps the strongest argument against lifting the funding ban is pragmatism.
Much of the current fear over therapeutic human biotechnology comes from angst over embryonic-stem-cell research, and it’s not just coming from abortion foes.
People are scared. Rightly or wrongly, use of embryonic cells invokes visions of Dr. Josef Mengele and a terrifying slippery slope towards playing around with human life.
It would be tragic if the fantastic results of non-embryonic stem-cell research were to be lost in a needless campaign to fund the embryonic variety with the unwilling subsidies of Americans whose objections are rooted in deeply held convictions.
We must ensure full public support for stem-cell research and all the promise it holds. That can’t be done unless we maintain the taxpayer-funding ban.