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2007 in Review: Reprogramming the Stem Cell Debate

Genetic Crossroads
December 21st, 2007

Shinya Yamanaka

­ Last month's dramatic news that ordinary cells can be "reprogrammed" to act like embryonic stem cells has already shifted the science of stem cell research. Logically, it should also shake up stem cell politics.

But some are unwilling to give up narrow partisan advantages that the stem cell battle is thought to afford. The Bush administration and religious conservatives were quick to claim vindi­cat­ion of th­e president's limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Some scientists and stem cell advocates are vociferously arguing the opposite: that the new techniques would never have been developed without embryo research.

What might we do instead of fighting about blame and credit, or warring about whether the stem cell war is over? Here's a proposal for moving forward:

­Support the new stem cell techniques to see if they can live up to their promise.

Avoid the hype that has heretofore sullied the stem cell debate. And avoid criticisms of the new method (e.g., the need to overcome cancer-causing propensities) without acknowledging that they also apply to the old one.

Loosen the administration's overly restrictive limits on federal funding for embryo research.

Put cloning-based stem cell research on the back burner. If the reprogramming method works, research cloning - and the risks of obtaining the enormous numbers of women's eggs that it requires - will be entirely unnecessary.

Support a federal ban on reproductive cloning: Let's join the dozens of other countries - including every nation doing biotech research - that have already prohibited it.

This package of policies and political agreements could be a model for consideration of other biotech applications that are gathering momentum or just over the horizon: sex selection and other selection techniques, "personalized" and race-specific medicine, DNA forensics, patents and other intellectual property issues, the costs and helpfulness of high-tech biomedicine. Beyond these are proposals for inheritable genetic manipulations, post-human genetic "enhancements," artificial life-forms that can multiply and mutate, and more.

People of good will from all ends of the political spectrum should be able to support policies that discourage biotechnological applications likely to exacerbate existing social divides and to create new ones. Similarly, it seems feasible to anticipate wide affirmation of social and economic justice, human rights and global inclusion, and responsible science in the public interest.

Further reading:­

Beyond the Embryo Fight
Richard Hayes
Los Angeles Times
November 22nd, 2007

Stem-Cell Science Outruns Political Debate
Marcy Darnovsky
San Jose Mercury News
November 23rd, 2007

Cloning-based stem cell research should be "put on the back burner"
Public interest group says cell reprogramming tips the balance
Press release
November 23rd, 2007

Sea change in cloning-based stem cell research shifts scientific and political debate
New source of stem cells and statements by Wilmut weaken argument for use of cloning techniques, women's eggs
Press release
November 20th, 2007

Defensive Ideologues Dig In
Jesse Reynolds
Biopolitical Times blog
November 30th, 2007

Stem cell cheerleading and hand-wringing at The New York Times
Marcy Darnovsky
Biopolitical Times blog
December 4th, 2007

Biotech Stem Cell Spin
Jesse Reynolds
Biopolitical Times blog
December 12th, 2007

Yamanaka: Non-scientists Should Oversee Stem Cell Research
Jesse Reynolds
Biopolitical Times blog
December 17th, 2007


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