Neil D. Theise, Stem Cell Research: Elephants in the Room

Issues in Law & Medicine, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Neil D. Theise, Stem Cell Research: Elephants in the Room


78 MAYO CLINIC PROC. 1004 (2003).

The biggest elephant by far is the embryonic versus adult stem cell debate. It has conditioned research agendas, funding patterns, and publication or rejection of data, i.e., every aspect of and the scientific discourse around new findings. Some of the influence has been positive; much has been negative.

The initial reports of adult stem cell plasticity--blood to muscle, brain to blood, blood to liver--were heralded by Science as the "scientific breakthroughs of 1999." Naturally, the reports were immediately controversial. Chipping at decades-old encrustations of dogma, the revolutionaries were having a field day, while the dogmatists and guardians of doctrine were soon beside themselves. All in all, this activity occurred during an exciting but essentially normal time in the world of science, emblematic of the passionate engagement that is the best of science and the best of scientists. It was not certain whether the aforementioned three reports, and the rapid follow-up studies, would survive the test of time; but it was clear that this was more than a single laboratory reporting "cold fusion."

Alas, it was around this time that the controversy about the use of embryonic stem cells flared. The first influence of this simultaneity was felt in the "meaning" attached to adult stem cell research. Immediately, the single most important feature of the research was that it could be used for therapeutic purposes. All subsequent funding applications, nearly all the research, and all the scientific editorializing would swirl around the practical applications of the findings, not about the "pure" science of finding out how our bodies work. From this moment forward, research into adult stem cell plasticity would always be looked at, first and foremost, through the lens of therapeutic applicability, rather than simple curiosity about the body.

Worse yet, the study of adult stem cells became inextricably tangled with that of embryonic stem cells. A similar political engagement in biomedical research flared in the mid-1990s with debates about use of fetal tissues; the political shift in America that followed the 1998-1999 change in American government created the chance for the anti-abortion lobby seized on a potent, very simple formula: if adult stem cells could do everything embryonic stem cells could do, then embryonic stem cell research is not necessary. The Mayo Clinic report that a single transplanted marrow stem cell could, through clonal expansion, generate tissues of mesodermal, endodermal, and ectodermal lineages was seized quickly by the antiabortion lobby as confirmation of this formula.

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