Thursday, September 02, 2004

"The Point" Flunks Biology 101

In any number of past editorials, Mark Hyman has demonstrated an ignorance (either willful or by nature) of basic economic facts. The latest "Point" expands this know-nothingness to the realm of biology.

Pointing out that the Republicans have avoided talking directly about stem cell research, Hyman suggests (as if he was the first to think of it) that the whole controversy over stem cells could be avoided if more focus was put on stem cells harvested from umbilical cords rather than embryos. According to Hyman, there are merely three small differences between stem cells harvested from umbilical cords and embryonic stem cells:

Cord and embryonic stem cells are nearly identical with three exceptions: embryonic cells are theoretically able to clone new life. Creating life in the laboratory poses a huge ethical dilemma. Embryonic cells originate from a fetus -- enter the abortion debate. And lastly, lab researchers have not yet been successful in controlling cancerous growth within embryonic cells.

Let’s get out our red markers and begin correcting, shall we?

First, stem cells aren’t used to create “life.” Hyman’s wording suggests that such cells are used to create clones of some sort that are then harvested for their organs or other biological necessities. Theoretically, any number of human cell types could be used to “clone new life.” What makes embryonic stem cells unique is that they can develop into any specific type of human cell that there is: blood cells, nerve cells, brain cells, etc. By conflating stem cell research with cloning, Hyman introduces a red herring of Moby Dick proportion to the issue.

Second, embryonic stem cells do not originate “from a fetus.” As their name implies, they come from an embryo—an extremely undeveloped embryo at that (no more than a cluster of cells). A fetus is defined as an unborn organism at an advanced stage of development that clearly shows the characteristics of the full-grown organism. Stem cells are taken from embryos precisely because they have not begun to differentiate themselves into multiple kinds of cells and taking on the form of the full grown organism. This is either a mistake resulting from an ignorance of the basics of human development that most of us learn in 8th grade life science class, or an attempt to demonize stem cell research by conjuring up images of nearly fully formed babies being harvested from their mothers’ womb.

Finally, the ability of stem cells to reproduce themselves rapidly does raise the danger of cancerous growth, but Hyman implies that this has been an insurmountable problem in stem cell research. While the possibility of stem cells mutating into cancerous cells is an acknowledged danger (as it is with any cultured tissue), this hasn’t been a non-starter in practice. In fact, a recent British study used stem cells to successfully treat rats without any malignant tumors. Hyman takes a theoretical problem and suggests it is an insurmountable practical obstacle.

Certainly cordal stem cells are helping medicine in a great number of ways. As of now, the evidence suggests they do not have the ability of embryonic stem cells to become any other type of cell that might be needed for treatment, but the day might come when we find a way to use them in this way. It’s also true that embryonic stem cell research raises ethical issues that must be addressed seriously. The fact is that the embryos used for this process are almost all “left overs” from in-vitro fertilization procedures that cannot and will not ever become human. Without stem cell research, they will simply be thrown away. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t discuss seriously the ethical ramifications of using embryos for medical purposes.

And this is exactly the issue with Hyman’s editorial. The problem is not his stance on embryonic stem cell research; it’s the cavalier way Hyman misstates the facts to support his position (although we should hardly be surprised at this by now). Reasonable arguments can be made on both sides, but if the dialog is to be productive, it must be conducted with at least a basic understanding of the facts at issue, as well as the honesty not to manipulate them simply for political purposes. This is an issue not only with Hyman’s editorial on this particular subject, but with much of the debate carried on by political officials and pundits on scientific issues: they’re simply too lazy and/or too ignorant to bother with understanding the issues they discuss. This leads to rhetoric and decision making based solely on politics rather than science (or ethics, for that matter), such as President Bush’s contortions in his decision to allow federal funding for research on some stem cell lines but not others (and Kerry’s a flip-flopper?).

The least we owe to each other is to talk about the most complex issues that face us in a way that honors the truth. But let’s not look to Mr. Hyman for this.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

For more information on stem cells, both embryonic and otherwise, see these links:


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