The politics of stem cells are stuck in a repeating loop. This week, the House of Representatives will again take up a bill to overturn President Bush’s embryonic-stem-cell-funding policy, and to use taxpayer dollars to encourage the destruction of human embryos for research. The Congress already passed such a bill last year, and the president vetoed it. In fact, the House already passed that bill again just this January, the Senate passed a slightly altered version in April, and now the House is passing that Senate version to send it to the president. The replay will continue next week, too, when President Bush again vetoes the bill, and the Congress once more fails to come up with the votes to override the veto.
And yet on the ground stem-cell science is hardly in a state of déjà vu. While opponents of the Bush policy again and again trot out their tired arguments in Washington, scientific developments continue to point in a different direction — away from the false opposition of science and ethics and toward a potential consensus solution.
That solution, if it pans out, would involve the production of cells with the characteristics and abilities of embryonic stem cells, but without requiring the destruction of embryos. The President’s Council on Bioethics examined a few possible ways of doing this in a brief paper two years ago, and since that time just about all the possibilities they examined have seen some real-world progress.
The coming week’s issue of the journal Nature, made available online this morning, contains several extensive reports of surprisingly significant advances toward full-blown somatic-cell reprogramming.
The key publication comes from a team at MIT led by the prominent stem-cell scientist Rudolph Jaenisch. Working in mouse cells, they took the results of the 2006 Japanese effort, corrected some key flaws, introduced several improvements, and produced cells that appeared to pass all the critical tests of so-called “pluripotency” — the ability to be transformed into a large variety of cell types, which scientists so value about embryonic stem cells.
Will this affect the debates going on in Washington and Dover about funding embryo-destructive research? probably not. This debate has never really been about science, but only about the politics of life. Refusing to fund this research could be taken as tantamount to admitting that embryos are, in fact, human life and forces in support of abortion can never allow that to occur.