University of Wisconsin’s James Thomson is a remarkable scientist. In 1998 he sparked the “great stem cell war” by deriving the first stem cell lines from human embryos. Ironically, last November, as that political and cultural conflagration blazed, Thomson—along with Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka—poured water on the flames by turning ordinary skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells (induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs) that may have the same properties scientists believe are best to treat the most serious of human afflictions.
To understand why this breakthrough is so culturally, as well as scientifically important, we need to recount the political turmoil caused by Thomson’s original embryonic stem cell breakthrough. Embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is intensely controversial because embryos must be destroyed in order to derive the cells This is morally wrong, opponents argue, because it destroys human life and reduces the moral status of embryos to that of a mere natural resource.
Proponents disagree. They argue that already born people count more than microscopic organisms and moreover, that embryonic stem cells are the key to creating “regenerative medicine,” a technique that uses cells and other body substances to restore function to diseased or injured body parts. Pro ESCR advocates also promised to use only “leftover” embryos from IVF treatments that “are going to be thrown out anyway,” arguing that since these embryos were doomed in any event, society might as well get something good out of them.
The big fight began, as so many political brouhahas do, over money. Proponents wanted more than a free hand for researchers to conduct these experiments—which was never in question. They also demanded that President Bush provide bounteous federal funding. But Bush refused to be pushed. In August 2001, he announced that he would only allow federal funding for ESCR on stem cell lines already in existence as of August 9, 2001.
Proponents of ESCR were enraged, not just because of the financial restrictions but because of the clarion message Bush sent through is policy that human embryos matter morally. To break the presidential will—and win the greater moral debate—biotech lobbyists mounted a brilliant political campaign to sell ESCR as promising imminent hope for cures, a message that resounded through the culture as mega celebrities such as the tragically paralyzed Christopher Reeve and Parkinson’s disease-afflicted Michael J Fox demanded that Congress overturn the Bush policy.
Indeed, funding ESCR became so politically popular that both Republican and Democratic-led Congresses passed bipartisan legislation to overturn the Bush policy. Bush vetoed these bills, but as election year 2008 dawned, his approach seemed to be in its death throes as embryonic stem cell research looked to be a sure political winner for the Democratic Party and its eventual presidential nominee.
A second front in the great stem cell war broke out over human cloning. Dropping their earlier promise to limit ESCR to leftover IVF embryos, scientists began to claim that “therapeutic cloning” was the real key to developing regenerative medicine because it would permit the creation of patient specific, tailor made embryonic stem cells taken from embryos created through somatic cell nuclear transfer—the same cloning technique used to make Dolly the sheep. But with Bush in the Oval Office, promoters of human cloning knew that no money would be forthcoming for that effort. Indeed, it was all they could do to prevent human cloning from being outlawed.
As these controversies raged, Big Biotech decided to do an end run around the federal rules and get what it wanted from the states, opening a third front in the intensifying stem cell war. California voters passed Proposition 71, which authorized the California to borrow a whopping $3 billion over ten years ($7 billion including interest) to fund research. Worried about losing biotech jobs to California, other states rushed to fund the research too. Then in 2006, Missouri voters narrowly passed Amendment 2 in Missouri creating a constitutional right to conduct human cloning research in a conservative Bible Belt state. The pro ESCR/cloning forces seemed on the verge of winning the debate in a rout.
But as 2007 drew to a close, those paying close attention noticed a subtle shift. After nearly ten years of intense study—and nearly $2 billion in funding from private and public sources financing the experiments—no ESCR cures were on the horizon. On the other hand, little reported by the mainstream media—but touted widely in alternative information outlets such as tothesource—adult stem research was advancing at an exhilarating pace, including the commencement of early human trials to treat conditions such as spinal cord injury, diabetes, and heart disease.
Evidence of this change in public attitudes came in early November. New Jersey voters unexpectedly refused to pass a $450 million bond measure to fund ESCR, stunning the political and media establishments. Could it be, advocates on both sides of the controversy wondered, that Big Biotech’s embryonic stem cell circus barker-call of CURES! CURES! CURES! had begun to wear thin?
That’s when Thomson and Yamanaka dropped their big iPSC breakthrough bombshells. While work remains to be done to perfect the technique, such as finding ways to introduce necessary genes into the cells without using viruses—and important to pro lifers, to reprogram cells without using DNA derived originally from aborted fetuses—IPSCs have transformed the political environment in ways unthinkable only four months ago.
The Bush policy, once on the verge of being overturned, is now almost surely safe for the balance of his term. Embryonic stem cell research is now rarely discussed. Most importantly, iPSCs—if they pan out—have the potential to provide everything that therapeutic cloning advocates promised—patient specific, tailor made, pluripotent stem cells—without the moral contentiousness sparked by creating or destroying human embryos.
Does this mean that the controversy is over? Not yet. Scientists still want to conduct ESCR to investigate pluripotency. But the Bush approved lines should be fine for that. Some researchers also insist on continuing the drive to conduct human cloning—the crucial technology to permit genetic engineering, fetal farming for organs, and reproductive cloning.
But most people want none of these brave new world technologies. They simply want Uncle Charlie’s Parkinson’s disease treated or their little Amy’s diabetes alleviated. And with adult stem cells and eventually iPSCs, looking as if they may bring efficacious regenerative treatments to clinical settings, we may have happily arrived at the “beginning of the end” to the great stem cell war.