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August 16, 2004

The Silence in the Searching

Perhaps I'm betraying a sort of naiveté in admitting it, but I found a short piece by Ramesh Ponnuru, related to stem-cell research, absolutely astonishing. As with the family featured in the episode of Primetime that I described last week, the Kallsen family found their way toward advocacy for embryonic stem-cell research when their children — two girls, in their case — were diagnosed with diabetes. They even went so far as to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with their congressman, Republican Mark Souder. And then:

Souder was "very, very gracious," says Kallsen. But he said that he supported adult-stem-cell research, not research that killed human embryos. The fact that embryonic-stem-cell research involved destroying human embryos came as news to Kallsen and his family. "Basically, it was a learning experience for us. We were not well informed about all of the issues. We're all pro-life and...we had not done enough research on our own to understand that if we were promoting embryonic stem-cell research that's the opposite of pro-life. We were so interested in finding a cure that we weren't looking at how it's done." Kallsen also now believes that adult-stem-cell research is more promising than he had thought at the time of the meeting.

I'm not faulting the Kallsens, but really: think about that. Think about the extent of misunderstanding, or only partial understanding, that must surround this issue if it is possible for those actively pushing for one side, in the year 2004, not to know the alternatives that the other side supports. More than that, imagine the perplexing gap of silence that people must perceive when they don't even know the opposition's reason for opposition!

Posted by Justin Katz at August 16, 2004 8:39 PM

And to confuse matters worse, Kerry & Co are throwing accusations that Bush is not funding Stem Cell research at all.

I have heard that another method for obtaining fetal stem cells is from umbilical cords. Has anybody else heard anything about this?

I would like to know if/why this alternative is or is not viable.

Posted by: smmtheory at August 16, 2004 11:48 PM

My understanding is that umbilical cords are mainly useful as a source of adult stem cells. Essentially, except perhaps for questions of longevity, the consideration with adult stem cells is that they can only be made to transform into limited other types of cells, such as bone marrow to liver, nerve, muscle, and kidney cells. I think I've read somewhere that umbilical cord cells are more versatile, but whether or not that's the case, I'm pretty sure that stem cells from their blood have already been put to use curing diseases.

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 17, 2004 12:28 AM

My understanding from all the reading I've done on the subject over the last several years is that one of the reasons embryonic stem cells were originally thought to have such an advantage over adult stem cells is that they were more differentiable (sp?), having more potential to be coaxed into other types of cells. However, they've been finding that adult stem cells are actually much more malleable than they thought - in addition to not having so much risk of uncontrollable/tumor-causing growth - and can be found all over the body, in bone marrow (like Justin said), fat cells, etc. ASCs can come from umbilical cords too. They are just as pluripotent as ESCs, and have actually been used successfully in human treatments already.

Regarding ESCR in diabetes research - I'm very sympathetic to the search to find a cure for diabetes, having known many people affected by the disease. But when I found out the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation did ESCR, I stopped giving to them. I wish it were otherwise, but I can't support that type of research. It's unfortunate that so many people either don't know other options or are unaware of what ESCR actually involves - I'm glad the congressman in this case actually helped change people's minds, but Justin's right that it's astonishing people who care so deeply about an issue can not understand the other side.

On a flip note, did anyone see the South Park episode parodying Christopher Reeve and stem cell research? Made me cringe the whole time, but actually made an incredibly pointed impact about embryonic research.

Posted by: Kimberly at August 17, 2004 10:50 AM

Justin and Kimberly,
Thank you both for your enlightening responses. It does not pay to stay in the dark about any of the issues on this topic.

I think one of the most misleading claims of stem cell research is the possibility of a cure for diabetics without emphasizing the difference between Type I and Type II. As an adult with Type II and plenty of insulin capacity, I do not see any significant gains to be made from this research.

There are a lot of diabetics out there with Type II that are probably being mislead.

Posted by: smmtheory at August 17, 2004 10:54 PM