Dec 5, 2013
Science Progresses Despite Politics
Posted on Jun 14, 2007
BOSTON—By now you may be forgiven for suspecting that science is tinted—if not entirely tainted—by politics. The arguments over evolution and global warming alone are enough to make anyone believe that we have red and blue science as well as red and blue states.
But nothing has been quite as polarizing over the past six years as the controversy over embryonic stem cells. Stem cells have been a defining issue even among politicians who can’t define them.
So it is no surprise to see a genuine, bona fide scientific breakthrough put through the political spin cycle. Last week, a trio of competing labs from Japan to Massachusetts rolled back the biological clock in mice and turned ordinary skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. The research raised the possibility that we might eventually be able to make stem cells without destroying human embryos.
This announcement came on the eve of a House vote to allow federally funded scientists to study cells from leftover frozen embryos at fertility clinics. And this disharmonic convergence put the politicians into orbit.
It tweaked conspiracy theories by embryonic stem cell proponents such as Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who suggested the irony of having a breakthrough announced every time a bill comes up for a vote. Opponents such as Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops speculated on a higher intervention in his favor. As he said, half-jokingly, “God is telling us he is there!”
Before this happens, let me offer a brief refresher course in Stem Cells 101. What scientists are trying to do is to take an ordinary cell from the human body and persuade it to become, say, a heart muscle cell or a brain cell or a liver cell to fix whatever ails us. But they don’t know how to do it.
The reason researchers use embryos is not because they want to run a recycling program for IVF clinics. Nor because they have a passion for wedge issues. It’s because the embryo can do what scientists can’t do yet. The embryo contains signals that tell the cell to switch on the program of development. But to harvest stem cells, the embryo has to be destroyed.
If, as this latest breakthrough suggests, researchers can reprogram ordinary body cells to act like stem cells in the friendly laboratory mouse, they may eventually be able to avoid the use of embryos at all. Which would be good news all around.
For once in this administration, it would be swell to see science trump its bully of a brother: political science.
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