Thursday, November 22, 2007

the skinny on those skin cells

Why do politics even have to play a part in this scientific debate? Sometimes, politics, though beloved to some, seeps into our livelihoods with the nonsecular vigor of a religious fanatic. But, perhaps that's just the nature of the political juggernaut.

The news about two different groups of scientists reporting initial breakthroughs in stem cell research should be a purely positive event, but alas. Before the contributing scientists could put down their beakers and pipettes, Washington, evangelists, and you name it have fashioned unwarranted arguments to their studies, all for rhetorical and approval rating gain.

But first, and more importantly, let's look at the science: The "old" method of stem cell creation, still in trials in human cells, is to take an unfertilized egg, and merge it with a donor cell, create a embryo, and then harvest the embryonic stem cells that begin to form with the development to create any kind of cell desired, and destroying the embryo itself. The new breakthroughs are with skin cells, and involve mixing a skin cell with a virus that carries a person's genes. The virus then gives the skin cells these genes, creating an "embryo-like" stem cell, which also serves as a cell that can be harvested to create other cells.

The new skin cell method seems like a good way to circumvent the whole ethical pothole created by some who disapprove of destroying cloned embryos, but it is also cause for concern -- whenever genes are manipulated, especially when they are carried by a virus and then extracted, there is a high if not eminent chance of cancer and other genetic diseases and deformities. It's surprising that all the hype for this new method of "non-embryonic" research neglects to mention the potentially life-threatening side effects. We do enough in this world to unintentionally give ourselves cancer - we should think twice before introducing more known causes. That said, more research should continue to see it this process is a viable option. BUT NOT at the expense of the original stem-cell research methods. And here's where the politics enters our scientific debate.

The White House, and evangelicals, and anyone else opposed to stem cell research because of its"unethical" considerations (i.e. the destruction of a cloned embryo) is lauding these new skin cell developments, many without even reading the full reports. They believe it is proof-positive that other methods can and should be explored and will, [no pun to anti-abortionists intended], "bare fruit." Bush's spokespeople have already pointed to this research to further validate Bush's two vetoes on stem cell research spending bills. They are itching to make this a debating point when it comes to platforms for the 2008 elections, because it was a fairly volatile issue, with many voters on both sides more apt to see an increase in funding for stem cell research, given its potential for saving the lives of millions with Parkinson's, nerve damage, etc. The Republicans would like to use these findings as a snide comeback, a kind of "i told you so" in light of their long held stance, that basically values a practically inanimate petri-dish life form over and above those multi-celled organisms we informally call our neighbors, siblings, parents, and friends. But it makes sense for Republicans to rally against stem cells -- they cost much much more to harvest right now in comparison to the money harvested from the average tax payer.

Both forms of research should be funded -- this is essentially a scientific debate, and here's why politics should just stay out. Even if (and that's a big "if") skin cells prove to be the best method,and they can discover more science to benefit people, both skin cells and embryonic cells should continue to be tested. From a purely scientific standpoint, when different theories are pitted up against each other, and there is a kind of "race" to the finish, to the end results, and hopefully a cure, the research in competition not only speeds it, it breeds better science. From a economical framework, most agree that in free economies, competition is a good thing- it keeps business sharp, and seeks to get ahead. The same can be applied to this scientific situation - no method should get complacent, or think they've cornered the market. And hopefully the benefits will come pouring in for those with spinal injuries and damaged organs. Because no matter how "unethical" you want to make stem cells to further your political standpoint and channel your almighty dollar, what we're essentially funding is people, not the destruction of them. Please, inform how you can comfort yourself with the thought of saving a handful of cells that WILL BE destroyed anyways, over the possibly of saving thousands of whole, suffering people NOW, and millions via prevention in the future. Perhaps this debate doesn't interest you, because you have no spines to begin with.

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