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Life Finds a Way

By Brian | March 17, 2009 | Share on Facebook

An interesting juxtaposition of news articles over at The Speculist:

At this point, just about everyone knows that President Obama lifted the Stem Cell research ban imposed by George W. Bush at the beginning of his presidency. Less reported, though equally exciting is this story about a breakthrough in the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iSPC’s), which are stem cells derived from somatic cells in adults.

Stem cells derived from adults are attractive for several reasons: they’re far easier to collect, they avoid the moral objections held by some about embryonic stem cells, and perhaps most importantly, they represent stem cells that exactly match the genes of the person in need of treatment.

So, good news all around. But here’s the part that really bends the mind:

What role did [George W. Bush's] restrictions play in inducing some researchers to begin working on iPSCs? Seeing as the work described [in the linked article] comes from Canada and the UK, it would be difficult to draw a direct line. But it would be, to say the very least, ironic if the much-hated stem cell research funding ban actually played a positive role in moving us towards a better solution.

This is another case of unintended consequences from government incentive programs. Those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research were generally seeking a ban on the this type of research altogether. The lack of funding in that area, though, has led (some) scientists to focus on ways to achieve the same results a different way. Would we have seen the benefits of stem-cell research sooner without the ban? Perhaps. But would anyone have ever focused on adult stem-cells if the ban hadn’t existed?

Topics: The Future is Now | 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “Life Finds a Way”

  1. Jeff Porten says at March 25th, 2009 at 10:21 pm :
    Brian –

    I don’t know who FutureBlogger is, but these are summary answers to the questions you raise, representing the scientific consensus as I understand it:

    1. Stem cells derived from adults are attractive for several reasons. And they are unattractive for many, many other reasons. It depends on the application. In general, embryonic cells are inherently much more powerful, and research into adult stem cells is years further behind, even with the boost given to them by Mr. Bush.

    2. What role did [George W. Bush's] restrictions play in inducing some researchers? Arguably, slim to none. What Bush did was divert the funding from the category of scientific endeavor that was believed to be the most fruitful, to a different one he liked better. This causes social Darwinism as scientists who want to stay with their research have to scramble to continue eating while they do so.

    Fact is, however pleasant the bedtime story would be that “George Bush lucked us into a whole new realm of science!”, these ideas predated him — in fact, they had to, in order for him to latch onto them as a pro-science fig leaf when he banned more promising research. Ideas with funding get discovered faster, but bad ideas with funding simply run into dead ends. Google “Lysenko” sometime.

    There are worthwhile things to pursue with adult stem cells, but the future with embryonic stem cells is revolutionary. It’s like comparing improved skin grafts to regrowing entire limbs. In fact, it’s exactly that.

    3. The lack of funding in that area, though, has led (some) scientists to focus on ways to achieve the same results a different way. Unfortunately for people who think this is a good idea, magical thinking is no more effective in science than it is in finance. So I’m hoping you’re not one of those people.

    4. Would we have seen the benefits of stem-cell research sooner without the ban? Absolutely, and you’re insane if you think otherwise. Just do the math on an eight-year delay to techniques that provide cures in 20 years. You’ve just moved your personal age from 60 to 70 when the treatment becomes available. So it would be a damned shame for anyone who’s unwise enough to die of those diseases during the Bush delay.

    5. But would anyone have ever focused on adult stem-cells if the ban hadn

  2. Brian says at March 26th, 2009 at 12:03 am :
    Easy cowboy – I’m more than in favor of embryonic stem cell research.

    That said, you obviously didn’t click through the link I provided. Two reasons I say that: first, the title of the article is “Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Take a Big Step Towards Clinical Applications” and two, the link appears to be broken now. Here’s a link to the scientific part of the story (without FutureBlogger’s comments regarding Bush’s previous ban). Also, there’s a YouTube video by a Dr. Jerome Zack, professor of medicine, microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at UCLA, describing the exciting potential of isPC’s.

    Now, to your points:

    1) The article was about how one of the things that made them unattractive (the need to use viral vectors to reprogram the adult cells has been overcome, making them much safer for clinical applications.

    2) Here, you refute your own argument. Bush diverted funding from one field to another, and that other field has advanced faster because of it. I, personally, am glad that both fields have moved forward (more on that later), but it’s insanity to suggest that Bush didn’t encourage research into isPC’s. This smacks to me as a reflexive need to keep anything resembling credit for any kind of success (even accidental) from George W. Bush. And at this point – whatever, dude. Have at it..

    3) Again, if you read the linked article, you’ll see that this isn’t magical thinking. If you need more convincing, here’s Barack Obama from yesterday’s (3/24/09) press conference:

    I am glad to see progress is being made in adult stem cells. And if the science determines that we can completely avoid a set of ethical questions or political disputes, then that’s great. I have no investment in causing controversy. I’m happy to avoid it, if that’s where the science leads us. But what I don’t want to do is predetermine this based on a very rigid, ideological approach, and that’s what I think is reflected in the executive order that I signed.

    I think he’s got it exactly right here. Both ideas are worth pursuing, and there’s no reason to cause controversy just to “stick it to the other side.” We’ll leave that up the scientists.

    4) Your math is a bit faulty on this. When Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research failed to meet expectations, private funding increased dramatically. A member of my family (who I won’t name here out of respect for her privacy) tried to donate fertilized embryos that were going to be discarded a few years back, and had to call three different research studies before she found one that wasn’t already fully stocked with embryos. All three doctors told her that funding for research in that area was plentiful, mainly in reaction to the federal funding situation, and that couples who had tried IVF (successfully or unsuccessfully) were calling in droves to donate embryos. So I think the math here is much more of the NEA variety (with the federal government providing a very small amount of the money)

    5) Actually, because of my family’s experience with this, I am fairly well informed on the topic. What Bush’s policy did was not so much limit the funding or research on embryonic stem cells, but limit the endorsement of the practice by the government. Obama’s subsequent policy allows for more public discourse, which is also a great thing.

    I’m personally convinced that had embryonic stem cell research been fully embraced by Bush, adult stem cell research (which is travelling a longer road to achieve similar results) probably would have been much more of a side project than it was. I’m thankful for it’s progress, not so much on religious grounds, but for the simple fact that I can no longer provide my doctors of the future with my own stem cells. So if, when I’m 70, they need “Brian Greenberg” stem cells, I’ll be glad if they can whip up a batch for me.

    So yeah – I’ll give Bush a little credit here, but quickly and emphatically state that this wasn’t his intent and that it was more luck than design. Either way, this was, is, and will be an exciting area of science to watch develop as we get older.

  3. Jeff Porten says at March 30th, 2009 at 1:12 am :
    you obviously didn

  4. Brian says at March 30th, 2009 at 9:50 am :
    70% of it was in direct contradiction to what I

  5. Jeff Porten says at April 4th, 2009 at 3:49 am :
    Yeah, technological breakthroughs have a way of being in direct contradiction to what you

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  9. Brian says at April 5th, 2009 at 2:41 am :
    Oh, is that what we

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