From Pluripotent to Impotent

Originally Published MDDI May 2001Editor's Page Postponement Stalls Government-Sponsored Research

May 1, 2001

3 Min Read
From Pluripotent to Impotent

Originally Published MDDI May 2001

Editor's Page

Postponement Stalls Government-Sponsored Research

The decision to put certain NIH-funded stem-cell studies on hold points to a triumph of ideology over ideas.

Not long ago, medical researchers setting their sights on creating new cell-based or tissue-engineering therapies for debilitating maladies like diabetes or heart disease faced a Herculean task. Replacing a patient's diseased or nonfunctioning tissues with donor tissue often posed insurmountable problems, especially of immune-system rejection. Over time, considerable success with certain procedures—for example, kidney, liver, heart, or bone-marrow transplants—was achieved through donor matching or immune-suppression techniques. But the number of available tissues or organs remained tragically inadequate.

Then, a miracle occurred. Like manna falling from heaven, despairing scientists, physicians, and patients were presented with the unthinkable: human cells, able to proliferate indefinitely, that could potentially differentiate themselves into every specialized tissue of the body and could be transplanted without provoking an immune response. Moreover, it would theoretically require as few as ten sources—perhaps only one—from which could be derived all of the material necessary to elucidate the origins of genetic mutations, screen drugs for safety and efficacy, and combat diseases ranging from cancer and Alzheimer's to juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's. These miraculous agents were called "stem cells" by their discoverers, and designated by an adjective—"pluripotent"—as glorious sounding as the immensity of their promise.

Spurred on by this unparalleled chance to benefit humanity, the National Institutes of Health, mighty engine of American research, is marshalling its resources on all fronts to...uh, well, at this point, I'm afraid things get a bit muddled. You see, last week it was revealed that the NIH had been told by its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, to postpone the first scheduled meeting of a committee to review grant applications for research on human pluripotent stem cells. The Bush Administration apparently ordered the move in defense of the sources of the cells: either microscopic hollow spheres, known as blastocysts, from the earliest stages of embryonic development, held in surplus by fertility clinics; or fetuses aborted to save the life of the mother.

Let's consider this again. The blastocysts are unwanted, never-to-be-used agglomerations of cells stored in freezers across the country. The fetuses are the byproducts of medically necessary efforts to preserve the lives of citizens of the republic. Although it's true that such abortions are often heartbreaking, this doesn't alter the fact that the fetuses are being discarded as medical waste. It seems that compassionate conservatives will warrant the recycling of aluminum cans to save electricity, but not the recycling of human cells to save desperately ill human beings.

Two factors prevent this pious folly from being a full-blown tragedy. The first is that scientists in other countries such as Great Britain, Israel, and Australia are building upon the studies pioneered by Americans. The second is that support for the policy is shaky, even among the Administration's natural allies. Politicians—along with their families and campaign contributors—also get old and sick. For enlightened leadership on medical research, the solution is clear: fill the Senate with octogenarians.

Jon Katz

Copyright ©2001 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

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