Why, in the face of hundreds of extant therapeutic applications from Adult Stem Cells (ASC), would researchers wish to pursue embryo-destructive research when Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC) haven’t made it out of animal trials because of their tumor-forming propensities?
As a Molecular Biologist, I am asked this question frequently by pro-lifers. Though I am adamantly opposed to embryo-destructive research, I’ll answer for them.
The answer is simple: They just want to know. Period. End of story.
A common misperception about scientists is that all of us are oriented toward therapeutic discoveries. Not so.
Many scientists are indeed oriented toward therapeutic applications, a great many are not. They practice basic research. That is, research with the sole purpose of discovering how things work. These are the ‘pure’ scientists, not oriented toward a given or serviceable outcome. Knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge.
Don’t knock it. It’s vital. Therapeutic advances grow out of the body of basic scientific research. In my graduate studies in molecular microbiology, I discovered quite by accident a whole new dimension of E. coli’s cellular physiology. It was genuinely exciting stuff for a new researcher, to unlock the secrets of nature through the rigorous and diligent application of the scientific method. It turns out that my discovery has all sorts of food safety and medical applications as well. Having presented the research at conferences, a few papers on it should get published this year.
Even if my work had no practical application, it is extremely gratifying to be able to offer the scientific community another piece of the puzzle. I am a basic researcher at heart. In the lab I live for this stuff.
So it’s not difficult to understand other molecular and developmental biologists who have the burning desire to know exactly how we are made in the womb. As a scientist who has studied developmental biology in grad school, I share that burning desire to know the awesome complexity and intricacy of the developmental process. It’s fascinating material.
As a Catholic Christian I’m not willing to kill babies in order to find out. Therein lies the dilemma.
Consider the picture with this post. Absent a Christian anthropology, it’s not hard to see where many of my peers do not consider the early embryo a human person. Without the eyes of faith guided by reason, all one sees is a clump of cells. We know, however, from work done on other animals that developmental pathways become extremely complex once one moves away from the simple cluster of cells seen here, and into the more advanced stages of growth and development
In the wiring-up of the nervous system, cells from the tail end of the spinal cord secrete chemicals that diffuse to the brain end of the spinal cord, inducing nerve cells to grow in that direction. Along the way the projection of the growing nerve cell, called the growth cone, is guided by molecules on the surface of other cells. This is precisely the developmental stage that will be needed to glean the information necessary in spinal cord injury repair therapeutics.
What will we do when we have deduced the answers at the simpler level of development, but now require an organism with a developing nervous system, the point where spinal cord injury repair can be tested? Having proceeded so far down this path, what rationale will be called upon for scientists to stop so much closer to potential therapies? The scientific community won’t hear of it. And really, at that point why should they? The principle that all human life is sacred will have long-since been compromised into obscurity. All we’ll be left with is an argument over the details. Dogs fighting over the carcasses of our own young.
I want to know these answers as much as the fiercest proponent of ESC research. I’m just not willing to sell out the innocent for my answers. If I don’t get them here, I’ll have eternity to get them from The Source.
In this battle over ESC and ASC, we do well to lobby lawmakers on where the entire source of therapeutic benefits resides, namely ASC’s. It’s even more important to educate the public in this regard. We also need to understand the lobby of university researchers who have a very different motive for this research. Money is also a major issue. When funding is set aside for a given line of inquiry, cash-strapped departments line up like refugees at an oasis in the desert. Promises of potential therapeutic applications are added to research funding proposals to gussy them up.
For the college, it’s the money. For the basic researcher it’s the money, the knowledge, and publications. For the applied researcher it’s the cure. For the politician, it’s cynically using the scientific community to lay down a noble-looking smokescreen in order to protect abortion by treating embryos as fungible laboratory substrate.
Joycelyn Elders, former Surgeon General under President Clinton, once famously declared:
“We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children.”
In truth, America is just beginning a love affair with the fetus through advanced imaging systems. Had we a love affair with the fetus, abortion would be illegal, and there would be no debate over embryo-destructive research.
It seems that pro-choice politicians have seized upon embryo-destructive research as the means to realize Elder’s fondest desire.