Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Means and Ends of Stem Cell Research

Recently (Dec 12), the BBC issued a disturbing report of the possible killing of newborn babies in the Ukraine to feed a flourishing black market for bone marrow stem cells. (The Ukraine is considered the self-styled stem cell capital of the world.) Mothers have reported giving birth to healthy babies only to have them taken away and never seen again. We've known for some time of a market for aborted fetuses as a source of marrow stem cells, but now video evidence of dismembered, infant bodies stripped of their organs (including brains) adds to the suspicion that child-trafficking has now reached a new level. If such reports prove true, it further shows what lengths people will go in pursuit of the unproven claims of those who carelessly promote stem cell "miracle" cures. [ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6171083.stm ]

Going back a month, the November US elections also demonstrate the lengths people will go to advance agendas that are ethically questionable and may not be supported by the public. One case in point is the ballet initiative known as Amendment 2 in the State of Missouri. Missouri voters were told that the amendment banned human cloning; in reality it only banned the gestation of a human clone. The amendment authorizes somatic cell nuclear transfer--the same cloning method successfully used to produce Dolly the sheep--in which a woman's egg is combined with a body cell to produce a human embryo for research purposes. Under the veil of deceptive language and hyped promises, the people of the state of Missouri were deceived into thinking they were voting for non-controversial research that would cure many dreaded diseases.

What are we to make of all this? Well, for starters, it seems there's a lot of misinformation about stem cell research in general. Confusion generally stems (no pun intended) from the failure to distinguish between embryonic and non-embryonic stem cells. Stem cells are the precursor cells for the 200+ tissues in the human body. Non-embryonic stem cells are more developed or specialized than embryonic stem cells and are believed to be limited in tissue development potential compared to embryonic stem cells, though this is unproven. Yet, despite the overzealous claims of some researchers and the emotional pleas of celebrity spokespersons, the simple fact is there are no embryonic stem cell cures on the horizon. While the most promising research results are from non-embryonic stem cells (about 72 treatment therapies according to my last count), there are no embryonic stem cell research treatments to date.

Additionally, much controversy exists with regard to the means used to obtain embryonic stem cells, which always results in the destruction of embryos. For those who believe life begins at conception, embryos are vulnerable human persons who are being killed for the sake of questionable research. And while non-embryonic stem cell research is less controversial, some are resorting to unethical means, as is the case in the Ukraine, to obtain stem cells. So what is driving all this?

At the top of my list is money. This is most clearly evident in the black market in the Ukraine. It's a simple case of supply and demand. As demand increases, supply decreases, and the value of these potentially life-giving cells exponentially rises. Simple economics, right? However, as we know, these sorts of economic conditions are fertile ground for black market entrepreneurs who care little about the means used to obtain their own ends as well as their buyers'.

But the influence of money does not exhaust its power in this alone. Researchers need money to fund their institutes, and often see this funding as a means of survival. Moreover, the allocation of government money (federal or state) for research which promises to relieve society of many its most dreaded diseases is attractive to policy makers.

A related, though distinct consideration is the nature of medical research and the quest for notoriety. While the motives of research scientists are usually expressed in altruistic terms, an accompanying motive indicative of research science is the desire for recognition and immortality--the desire to be the next James Watson or Francis Crick. From the outside it is difficult to appreciate how much pressure and competition exists in the field. While this can be a good thing, it can also blind those involved from careful consideration of the means used to achieve beneficial ends.

Finally, although public opinion is fairly split regarding embryonic stem cell research, people in general are prone to overlook ethical means when the end is framed in emotional and personal terms. Emotionally latent pleas and personal accounts of suffering tend to blur ethical vision, and when it comes to experimental medicine, clarity of vision is needed most. While sensitivity to suffering is important, and we ought to do what we can to relieve suffering, it is not so important that it trumps the means.