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August 24, 2004

The Mysterious Cures

I love this beginning (emphasis added):

At three laboratories here, separated by a taxi ride of no more than 10 or 15 minutes, the world of stem cell research can be captured in all its complexity, promise and diversity.

One of the labs focuses on cells taken from human embryos, another on cells from mice and fish, and a third from stem cells that have mysteriously survived in the adult body long after their original mission is over.

Those are the first two paragraphs of a piece by Gina Kolata in the New York Times. Upon my reading the blockquote that Glenn Reynolds reprinted for his readers, two thoughts came quickly to mind: 1) that the existence of adult stem cell research had finally been acknowledged by the mainstream media, and 2) that Kolata's facts about it disagreed with what I had previously thought to be the case:

One idea, the focus of about half the nation's stem cell research, involves studying stem cells that are naturally present in adults. Researchers have found such cells in a variety of tissues and organs and say they seem to be a part of the body's normal repair mechanism. There are no ethical issues in studying these cells, but the problem is in putting them to work to treat diseases. So far, no one has succeeded. ...

As the two lines of research proceed along parallel paths, researchers say it is far too soon to bet on which, if either, will yield cures first. "It's not either-or," said Dr. Diana Bianchi, chief of the division of medical genetics at Tufts New England Medical Center in Boston.

In line with the version of reality that I'd heard several times elsewhere, Wesley Smith described back in May some reasons why Kolata's assertions just aren't true. I suppose one could argue that Kolata's language implies cures already put into practice and available to the public, in which case she'd be right (technically), but anybody who had read only the her article would certainly be surprised to come across these tidbits:

The FDA has allowed a human trial to proceed that will use bone-marrow stem cells to treat severe heart disease. The experiment will be conducted at Texas Heart Institute in Houston. This approach has already safely improved heart function in 14 patients in Brazil, as reported in the medical journal Circulation ...

Dennis Turner of southern California was the first human patient known to have been treated by his own brain stem cells for Parkinson's. It is now a few years post treatment and his Parkinson's — which by now was expected to have substantially disabled him — has instead gone into substantial remission. Turner has been able to reduce his medications and rarely experiences significant symptoms of his disease.

Reading a bit farther into Kolata's piece, however, one notes that, although she's acknowledged that adult stem cells are found in "a variety of tissues and organs," she muddies the discussion terribly with the researcher whom she introduces as supposedly representing the adult branch of stem cell experimentation, Dr. Diana Bianchi:

But then she discovered that the fetal cells do not disappear when a pregnancy ends. Instead, they remain in a woman's body for decades, perhaps indefinitely. And if a woman's tissues or organs are injured, fetal cells from her baby migrate there, divide and turn into the needed cell type, be it thyroid or liver, intestine or gallbladder, cervix or spleen.

That's not what most people consider to be "adult stem cell research." Indeed, Bianchi isn't even sure that the cells that she's chasing are stem cells. In other words, these three labs hardly capture the stem cell debate "in all its complexity, promise and diversity." And I can't deny that the assertion that they do has the feel of deliberate distortion. So, although that huge swath of Americans who get their information only from mainstream sources might now be aware that such a thing as adult stem cell research exists (the apparent taboo having been broken), their conception of it is entirely wrong.

I wonder how much more difficult that will make it for conservative legislators to convince their constituents that embryonic stem cell research isn't the way to go.

In posting Kolata's piece, Prof. Reynolds writes something that strikes me as odd:

And, since I don't believe that life begins at conception, the embryonic aspect doesn't bother me much either.

Then when does it begin? It's been awhile since I've taken any biology classes, but as far as I know, it's indisputable fact that an individual human being's life begins at conception. I can understand the argument that an embryo isn't sentient or fulfilled or some other sort of life, even if I disagree about the practical difference that the adjective makes, but it's clearly life — self-contained human life — isn't it, professor?

Posted by Justin Katz at August 24, 2004 1:02 PM

Please tell me Prof. Reynolds is not a biology or similar science professor.

Posted by: c matt at August 24, 2004 1:18 PM

The mere conceit that the complexity of the stem cell issue (even just the research aspects of it) can be seen in a 15 minute radius in Boston tells you right off the bat how limited the viewpoint of the author is. The distortion might be intentional, but it might also just be the result of the parochial view of a NYTimes reporter.

Reynolds is a lawyer, not a scientist. I've seen a handful of flippant comments like the one you quote, but no further development of his reasoning (an allegory for the Instapundit blog as a whole...) Maybe he's done this somewhere, but his flip comments give me the impression that he knows on some level that there is a serious issue here, but that digging into it too deeply would conflict with other (libertarian) views he has, so he doesn't do the digging. His comments are akin to Kerry's - they are for political (or ideological) expediency, not due to serious philosophical consideration.

Posted by: Mike S. at August 24, 2004 4:19 PM

Hmm... a lawyer. Explains a lot. "And since I don't believe two physical objects can't occupy the same space at the same time, I shall now place my head through this brick wall." What does his "personal belief" about when life begins have to do with the objective scientific reality of when it begins?

Posted by: c matt at August 25, 2004 12:54 PM

Maybe GR subscribes to the philosophy that "Life begins at 40"?

Posted by: just another joker at August 25, 2004 3:08 PM