Lifting the stem cell ban – was there any point?

President Obama has lifted the ban on embryonic stem cell research enacted by Bush, but I’m left feeling that this intervention came many years too late.

Pledging that his administration will “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” President Obama on Monday lifted the Bush administration’s strict limits on human embryonic stem cell research.

But Mr. Obama went on to say that the majority of Americans “have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research; that the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight the perils can be avoided.”

In making his announcement, Mr. Obama drew a strict line against human cloning, an issue that over the years has become entangled with the debate over human embryonic stem cell research.

As someone who works with stem cells I find this largely an empty, symbolic act, but one that needed to be done anyway. The reality is the damage was done by Bush already, and we’re fortunate that it was only a temporary delay in some of the most important research humans have developed to date.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that in 2006 a revolutionary result was discovered by Japanese scientists led by Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University. What they found was the reset button for mammalian cells, the genes that need to be expressed for a cell to revert to a pluripotent state. We wrote extensively about what results in these cells – induced Pluripotent Stem Cells or iPSC – mean for stem cell research and regenerative medicine overall. Basically, the ability to reprogram the cells of any individual to a totipotent state – one in which the cells may make any cell-type or tissue in the human body. Before some fool suggests this was due to Bush remember it was a Japanese group, the research started long before Bush, and it never would have been possible without ES cells from which they culled the critical genes for the transformation.

So why does it matter that Obama has reversed this policy? Not only are ES cells inferior compared to iPSC for human therapies, but wouldn’t it be easier not to upset the fundamentalists that would equate the value of our lives to that of a ball of undifferentiated cells?

Ultimately this had to be done because symbolism matters. Yes, ES cells will largely be supplanted by iPSC, because the cells will allow us to study a far broader group of individuals – often with specific medical and genetic conditions – and will allow us to bypass the immunologic issues that would prevent easy implementation of ES cell technologies. However, the fact is that the research should never have been restricted on the basis of a religious belief in ensoulment. From a scientific point of view, life does not “begin”. Life is a continuum. Eggs are alive, sperm are alive. The fusion of the two is alive. The pre-implantation embryo is alive, as well as the post-implantation embryo. There is no beginning. No dead state in human reproduction. But certainly you wouldn’t equate the value of human life to that of sperm or eggs, and I don’t see any rational reason why the fusion of the two is that much more special than the two on their own. To come to the conclusion that a conceptus was somehow more human than its constituents, you must impute some mystical relevance to the process of fertilization.

What we had was a religious ban on science that had to be reversed, and a point that had to made that no one religion should be able to veto scientific research because it conflicts with their dogma. There actually is no real need for embryonic stem cell research to be extensively invested unless for some reason the iPSC don’t pan out (entirely possible) or if the turn out to be different from real ES cells in some fundamental way that makes them less valuable for basic research. For instance, I was reading about research into how ES are extremely resistant to retroviral replication, who knows what other clues about human physiology and evolution we can learn from these cells that may or may not be present in iPSC.

I’ve been watching the news a bit and the usual actors are out screaming doom and gloom, human cloning and embryo harvesting etc., despite explicit statements such as these from Obama:

He said that he would ensure that his administration “never opens the door” to cloning for human reproduction, adding, “It is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society or any society.”

But one point they’re making, that iPSC have made ES cells irrelevant, is probably correct. We don’t know for sure. Their point that ES cells will lead to some Brave New World scenario – not likely unless iPSC fail to live up to their promise and evil scientists from Klandathu take over the world. I’m not sure why Obama decided to make an issue of this now, maybe this is once again an example of his need to show that he’s running a different administration, one in which no religious group gets to veto science that conflicts with their dogma. While I admire that, he might as well have waited until the end of his term and made his life that much easier.