American Elephants

Why Science and Hollywood Don’t Mix by The Elephant's Child

All too often, issues that ought to be scientific debates slop out of their petri dishes and get involved with fashion and enthusiasm. Such has been the case with the stem cell debate. Adult stem cells have been the subject of scientific experiment since the late 1960s.

The stem cell debate began in the 1990s, and as is usual, became a matter of fashion as a succession of celebrities became involved. It reached fever pitch when President Bush limited the study of embryonic stem cells to existing lines. On one side of the battle were the proponents of embryonic stem cells who believed that only cells derived from embryos could become pluripotent and become any other kind of cell. On the other side were those who believed that it was deeply unethical to experiment with human embryos.

Well. Religion and government. Fundamentalists. Abortion enthusiasts. Outrage on both sides. Embryonic stem cells had some real problems. Cells from another individual, even an embryo, involved problems of rejection. And the nature of stem cells, which is to divide and multiply, often divided and multiplied into cancerous growths. Adult stem cells had a long head start, and had been successfully curing laboratory mice and showing great possibilities in human disease.

But Bush was some kind of religious nut, so obviously he was banning the real hope for people, especially celebrities who yearned to walk again or be cured of their disease.

Last November, two teams of scientists announced that they had successfully re-programmed adult cells to function as pluripotent cells. This presented the possibility of a win-win solution — scientists could work with the cells deemed most promising without the ethical conflict. Researchers are excited about the work and it is moving forward quickly. Induced pluripotent stem cells will be not only easier to use, but they would share both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA with the original patient.

Politicians and enthusiasts aren’t ready to give up on the battle, but there is at least hope now that science might win the argument. Wouldn’t that be refreshing.

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