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Jewish World Review July 31, 2001 /11 Menachem-Av, 5761

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

Facts left out of stem cell debate -- I WASN'T surprised to see actress Mary Tyler Moore on Chris Matthew's "Hardball" show extolling the breathtaking benefits that belong, alone according to her, to embryonic stem cell research.

It's easy to see why people desperately want to believe that research currently in play would restore the health of those with chronic, degenerative or deadly diseases. (Moore herself struggles with diabetes.) My own mother succumbed with lightning speed to the cancer multiple myeloma six years ago - and how I would have loved to have believed that a cure was imminent.

Such fundamental human desires are a big reason for the raging embryonic stem cell debate and the question President Bush faces now - should such research be federally funded?

Tragically, the profound ethical questions at stake are almost dismissed as proponents of such research doggedly pursue an "ends justifies the means" strategy. They argue that stem cells, sort of the body's "master cells," are most if not exclusively useful when they come from embryos - which are destroyed in the process. They maintain that only these cells from the earliest stages of human life hold the breathtaking promise of easily differentiating into other kinds of cells. (The embryos are usually "left over" from in vitro fertilization, though at least one research center has, frighteningly, created embryos for the purpose of this research.)

But it turns out such advocates have skipped the fundamental moral questions only to arrive at science which is shoddy. Because stem cells from adults, umbilical cords, even fat have been shown to be astoundingly useful in disease research. Just this week alone the Reuters News Service reported that adult bone marrow stem cells have been morphed into kidney cells, potentially providing a real breakthrough for treatment of kidney disease, and that a German man given a transplant of his own bone marrow stem cells to repair his heart is doing well.

But this shouldn't surprise anyone. Non-embryonic stem cells have proven useful for years. Umbilical cord stem cells have restored the immune systems of children ravaged by cancer. Cadaver brains have yielded stem cells that can be transformed into different kinds of brain and neuron cells, offering hope for victims of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Stem cells from fat have been changed into muscle, bone and cartilage.

That's led renowned scientists to suggest a cache of possibilities for non-embryonic stem cells. UCLA's Dr. Marc Hedrick, the lead author of a study on stem cells from fat, told the Los Angeles Times that the results are so promising it "makes it hard to argue that we should use embryonic cells." Dr. Eric Olson, chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center said that almost "every other week there's another interesting finding of adult cells turning into neurons or blood cells or heart muscle cells. . ." Dr. Neil Theise of the new York University School of Medicine and a co-author of a recent stem cell study said that "This study provides the strongest evidence yet that the adult body harbors stem cells that are as flexible as embryonic stem cells."

The question may really be, do embryonic stem cells provide such a cache or have they been entirely oversold to a willing public? A major stem cell study just reported in the journal Science showed that embryonic stem cells "are surprisingly genetically unstable, at least in mice" as the Washington Post put it.

And what about humans? The Post went on to reveal that the authors of the study originally "called for research" to see if genetic instability in embryonic stem cells might "limit their usefulness in clinical applications." But this particular bombshell was dropped from the report only days before it was released. It seems there was fear that just raising the question could upset the political apple cart.

In any event the superior usefulness of embryonic stem cells, upon which the entire argument of its proponents rests, appears more and more to be speculation. So what is the agenda of at least some advocates and researchers pushing for federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, particularly those who know all this? Perhaps it's as simple as money. Maybe it's politics, especially the politics of abortion, or the desire to render human life in its earliest stages nothing but clinically useful "material."

Or perhaps some of them just think they are "Masters of the Universe" who can't, or shouldn't, be slowed down by moral or scientific considerations.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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