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Friday, July 07, 2006

Fundamentalist Christians attack embryonic stem cells in WaPo
I'm sorry, I should have blogged about this yesterday, but
Robert P. George and Eric Cohen wrote an anti-ES cell op-ed
for the Washington Post yesterday. First of all, note that Eric Cohen writes for the New Atlantis journal of bioethics, which if you read their pubmed listings you see that it's just a Christian fundamentalist ethics journal (read how they cite the bible for bioethics arguments). Robert George is a member of Bush's sham of a bioethics council, which is comprised of a minority of scientists (I count 7 actual scientists out of 18 members, many are JD's, political scientists or MD's with nonexistent scientific background) and even includes the hack of all hacks, Charles Krauthammer, Dr. Strangelove himself. Beware the non-practicing MD who purports to tell you how to run medicine. Anyway, neither of these two guys are scientists, they're just religious blowhards trying to cram their morals down the throats of all Americans.

Now that I have finished attacking them Ad Hominem, let's talk about this BS paper. First of all, these asshats suggest that all ES cell scientists are crooked, because of Hwang Woo Suk. They actually make the argument that Hwang Woo Suk wasn't dishonest because he had fundamental problems with telling the truth and falsifying data, but because the field of ES cell research creates dishonesty in its researchers. I shit you not.

But this is exactly the wrong lesson to draw from the South Korean scandal. Cloning will always be morally corrupt because it requires deliberately creating and destroying thousands (or millions) of human embryos. At the same time, the current effort in Congress to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to include embryos left over in fertility clinics will never satisfy the scientists, because such stem cells will not give them the genetic control they want over the cells. The real lesson of the cloning scandal -- and the real opportunity now before us -- is to find a scientific alternative to research cloning, one that gives us the stem cells we desire without the ethical violations we abhor.

In South Korea, the buying and selling of eggs was done in the shadows, covered up by false documents and brazen lies. This would never happen in America, researchers assure us. But as time goes on, rather than calling research cloning itself into question, some will call the ethical limits into question: Why not pay women for their eggs? Why not induce poor women to profit by risking their health? Of course, no responsible doctor could advise his patient to undergo such a procedure. But perhaps we will simply "update" basic medical ethics as well, and decide that the "good of mankind" trumps the good of individual patients.

We have seen where this amoral logic leads us -- to shameful abuses of research subjects, which surely no one wants to repeat. But we have also seen, in the stem cell debate, how moral lines erode quickly -- from using only "spare" embryos left over in fertility clinics to creating human embryos solely for research to creating (or trying to create) cloned embryos solely for research. What will be next? Probably proposals for "fetal farming" -- the gestation of human embryos to later developmental stages, when potentially more useful stabilized stem cells can be obtained and organ primordia can be "harvested."

You see, Hwang Woo Suk was immoral and improperly forced his female employees to donate eggs, so it's just a matter of time before all ES scientists are holding women at knifepoint and demanding egg donations. Because we're fundamentally immoral because we destroy embryos, we can't do anything morally. We're just mad scientists here, demanding babies be fed into the furnace of science so our monstrous evil mill of knowledge can continue to turn. Feed me babies, I am a scientist, I need babies to live, muahahahah! Jackasses.

Then they introduce a new piece of hysterical language, "fetal farming." Now this is the biggest lie of all time. There is no other word for this but a rotten, stinking load of bullshit that smells from miles away. First of all, no one is talking about growing embryos to later time points. Why in the world would we? ES cells can only be derived from pre-implantation embryos. They can not be derived from later stages, and why would we try? For years research has been performed on fetal material from abortions and cells were never identified that had the plasticity or potential of ES cells.

They say this because when people learn about where ES cells actually come from, they have trouble staying upset. ES cells are pulled from an embryo that is microscopic (here's what it looks like), that hasn't even begun the most basic stages of development, like gastrulation or neural tube development. Embryos at these stage only have about a 50% survival rate anyway, with half of them failing to implant, so we create this type of life naturally all the time only for it to fall on the trash heap of stochastic biology. If god is implanting souls in all these things, limbo is full of human caviar. And when you see what is being destroyed, and learn that these embryos are not likely to survive half the time normally, then people grow less hysterical. Bring up the bullshit topic of "fetal farming" though, and now you're going to get everybody upset.

But back to the big lie. This is just a big freaking lie! Not only has this research already been done on tissue from aborted fetuses, there would be no value in repeating it with created embryos. It would be much easier to create the ES cell lines, then differentiate them into the relevant stem cells in a controlled manner (or uncontrolled in an embryoid body). This has already been done for several dozen cell types, including hematopoietic stem cells. The authors are purposefully creating an unrealistic and emotional hypothetical to rally up the crazies. Just think, we're going to start making babies in incubators just to kill them and harvest their organs! The horror! Oh brave new world! This assertion is stupid, stupid, stupid, and wrong, wrong, wrong. What liars!

Then they consider some bills being faced by congress now, and can't help continuing to mislead and lie.

Last week the Senate agreed to consider three bioethics bills: one that would permit federal funding for research on embryos left over in fertility clinics, one that would prohibit fetal farming and one that would fund various alternative methods of producing genetically controlled, pluripotent stem cells -- just the kind of stem cells we would get from cloning, but without the embryo destruction.

The first of these bills is misguided and unnecessary, and those senators who have pledged to support it should reconsider and change course. For the first time, it would use taxpayer dollars to encourage the destruction of embryos, and it would do so without giving researchers the genetically customized cells they desire. The second and third bills, however, would enable our country to explore the potential of stem cells without violating human dignity or taking human life.

The first bill is just permitting the use of embryos from fertility clinics that would be destroyed anyway, so federal tax dollars are not being used to destroy embryos. The embryos will be destroyed anyway, it's just allowing them to be used. Second they claim that creation of these lines destroys human life, as if that is a foregone conclusion. Sorry guys, but not everyone agrees with your stupid and uninformed belief that life begins at conception. Life does not begin it is continuous. Eggs are alive, sperm is alive, the fusion of the two is alive. There is no "dead" stage in reproduction. We don't care about the loss of skin cells, of sperm, or eggs for that matter. We don't seem to mind that we lose 50% of all fertilized embryos naturally. We don't even seem to mind that all these embryos are being created artificially for IVF. So why is using them for ES cells destruction of life? Why are these 4-day old embryos considered living on the order of other humans? Because some guy in a funny hat said so (even though the bible says otherwise). That doesn't mean that we all believe this claptrap, and we shouldn't have moral and ethical decisions for the nation being made based on the beliefs of a vocal minority. A majority of people support ES cell research being done, and if the minority doesn't want it, they don't have to receive it, or contribute embryos. But they can't decide for the entire country what is going to be researched based on their provincial morality, otherwise they could start opposing all sorts of science into HIV, STDs, homosexuality, fertility/reproductive research etc. If every minority could block research into what they considered immoral, eventually the only thing left for scientists to do would be filming puppies with a wide-angle lens. Science is offensive sometimes, deal with it. Hell, we have people from Focus on the Family who say we shouldn't develop an HPV or even HIV vaccine because these deadly diseases are a deterrent to sex! Are we going to let these crazies decide what kind of research is done? No thanks, I'd personally like to see an HIV vaccine.

Next, they impugn the morality of all ES cell researchers, even though they have no evidence that scientists in this country are doing anything but obeying the rules, and waiting for a more science-friendly administration take over.

In the end, the lesson of the cloning scandal is not simply that specific research guidelines were violated; it is that human cloning, even for research, is so morally problematic that its practitioners will always be covering their tracks, especially as they try to meet the false expectations of miraculous progress that they have helped create. If cloning is really so important for research, then overturning the Bush administration policy to fund research on "spare" IVF embryos is not very useful. But because cloning is so morally problematic, we need to find another way forward.

It is not morally problematic to me, and I feel no need to cover my tracks. I do not share their view of what human life is. Sorry, no moral problems here. Nor do I force women to donate eggs or falsify data just because I'm an ES cell researcher. What a shock, not everyone shares your backwards morality. Then notice they conflate research into human cloning to harvesting ES cells from IVF embryos. They try to say ES research without human cloning has no value. This is bullshit. They are completely separate. ES research can be done that is incredibly valuable without therapeutic cloning. They are not inextricably tied together by any stretch of the imagination and their attempt to do so is just dishonest and stupid.

Are they done being dishonest? Nope, they cite research that doesn't really support their claims to anything but the most cursory overview.

Instead of engaging in fraud and coverup, or conducting experiments that violate the moral principles of many citizens, we should look to scientific creativity for an answer. Since the cloning fraud, many scientists -- such as Markus Grompe at Oregon Health & Science University and Rudolf Jaenisch at MIT -- have been doing just that. And others, such as Kevin Eggan at Harvard, may have found a technique, called "cell fusion," that would create new, versatile, genetically controlled stem cell lines by fusing existing stem cells and ordinary DNA. Scientists in Japan just announced that they may have found a way to do this without even needing an existing stem cell line.

Check out Eggan's paper. It's a good paper, and it shows that you when you fuse an ES cell with a somatic cell you can reprogram the genome of that cell. However you end up with a tetraploid cell, and there is no evidence these cells can then replicate ES cell plasticity in a therapeutically relevant way because as long as they maintain the donor ES cell's genome, they will not be compatible with implantation into a human, as Cowan et al. acknowledge:

Eventually, this approach might lead to an alternative route for creating genetically tailored hES cell lines for use in the study and treatment of human disease. However, a substantial technical barrier remains before hES cells could be used for therapeutic purposes: specifically, the elimination of the ES cell chromosomes either before or after cell fusion

Sorry, I'm not going to bank all my chips on that unknown. As far as the Grompe (showed adult stem cells can transdifferentiate into or fuse with liver cells for correction of genetic liver diseases) and Jaenisch (showed creation of nonviable embryos that are crippled, so they don't technically have the potential to create a human embryo) papers go, nothing I've read leads me to believe they have a viable alternative to ES cell research or that in Jaenisch's case, the solution isn't just a clever sophistry. Grompe himself doesn't sound too sure that these "ethically formed" ES lines are a viable solution.

If they were smart, they would have cited this paper instead which we discussed here

Anyway, more lies, lies and damned lies from the people who always seem to think the most important thing is getting their way, rather than honestly engaging in debate. I also think they're more than happy to cite science that "supports" their view because they know 99.999% of people have not, and will not, read the science. I, for one, have, and I call shenanigans.

*update* Michael Kinsley has a stem cell article that isn't full of lies up at WaPo today. It's balanced, gets the facts right, and challenges the basic moral assumptions of our friends from New Atlantis.


Casmall said...

Caviar!! Brilliant. But I have another issue: when does life being? You love this argument, that there is no “dead” stage. This sounds to me like you’re tryn’ to argue with fundies… not very giveup of you Rev. How about this, when they say “when does life begin” what they mean is “ when does the soul happen”. Who can define soul outside of religious terms and who’s religion are you going to pick? Just tell them that the soul enters during intercourse and that it’s a sin not to fuck.

11:09 AM, July 07, 2006

Rev. Dr. said...

Life begins when the kids move out and the dog dies.

12:23 PM, July 07, 2006

minimalist said...

Lies. Life begins the moment the man has the lady's bra off.

Fantastic rant, rev. dr. I urge you to pare it down to the most essential/devastating points and send it as a letter to the editor.

12:50 PM, July 07, 2006

King_aardvark said...

"If god is implanting souls in all these things, limbo is full of human caviar."

Dude, that's the best line for the ES debate I've ever heard. I bow to your verbal superiority.

1:56 PM, July 07, 2006

Rev. Dr. said...

I'm very proud of it myself. I hear the Catholics are eliminating limbo though, so it might not apply for much longer.

2:33 PM, July 07, 2006

Anonymous said...

They already eliminated it.

Thats the thing about made up places they come and they go.

It's almost like they exist no where but the mind. Wierd huh?

2:43 PM, July 07, 2006

luolin said...

Came over from PZ.
Reading that the authors of that piece are on the bioethics council was worse than the actual article.

btw: You are overly optimistic if you think some fundamentalists do not oppose ivf. Not as many as oppose abortion, but some, including some politicians.

4:31 PM, July 07, 2006

Reen said...

I note that I am a member of the vocal minority that is offended by puppies being filmed with a wide-angle lens. So scientists aren't allowed to do that either. Maybe you could play tiddlywinks?

5:09 PM, July 07, 2006

Sinetifique said...

Loved it!! Can't this be published somewhere where all the people in the world can read it??? (not that I mean to slight your blog:p). I'd like to add your blog as a link in mine. Is that ok?

7:31 PM, July 20, 2006


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