Alternative Reality

Time was when we just couldn't hear enough about the wonders of "adult" and umbilical-cord stem-cell research. Whenever the Christian right and its political allies wanted to argue against expanded funding for embryonic stem-cell work, they would quickly cite study of these other types of regenerative cells as an alternative. As recently as the May stem-cell debate in the House of Representatives, one heard this refrain constantly, often framed in terms that directly contradict prominent statements about the relative merits of "adult" and embryonic stem cells by our very own National Institutes of Health.

Trouble was, scientists working in the stem-cell field do not see "adult" or umbilical-cord stem cells as a "rival" to embryonic stem cells. At best, they view research on these cells as one biomedical pathway among many, worth pursuing but certainly not to the detriment of any other avenue of inquiry. Scientists, in general, don't like the idea of prematurely shutting down unexplored vistas of study. That's especially so when part of the point of stem-cell research is to determine the relative potentialities of different types of stem cells and to compare and contrast their characteristics.

The Christian right's "adult" stem-cell campaign, then, amounted to a disingenuous attempt to construct a scientific rival to embryonic stem-cell research, for moral reasons rather than scientific ones. And unfortunately, as debate has now shifted from the House over to the Senate, we see precisely the same strategy being employed. Only the names have changed. New rivals have now supplanted "adult" stem cells in the role of phony alternative to embryonic research, but the fundamental point remains the same. The supposed rivals are, at best, complementary to ongoing embryonic stem-cell research, and President Bush's restrictions on broader research funding still need to be relaxed.

In a sense, you can't blame the Senate -- the last bastion where GOP loyalists hope to protect President Bush from having to veto a popular bill to expand stem-cell research funding -- for these diversionary tactics. At least Bush's henchmen, such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, have some originality. When the Senate vote that Frist has promised actually occurs (as it may this week), the chamber is expected to simultaneously vote on a score of other stem-cell bills that present various "alternatives" that have thus far been little discussed in the halls of Congress.

The newly proposed alternatives (all of which have been outlined in a recent white paper by the conservative President's Council on Bioethics) include the following: taking stem cells from embryos that are dead; taking stem cells from embryos in a way that would not kill them; "altered nuclear transfer," i.e., creating embryo-like entities through cloning that would be unable to develop but nevertheless could be used for research; and "reprogramming" adult stem cells back to the point where they're less specialized and more like blank-slate embryonic ones. All of these ideas are scientifically imaginative, but relatively untested. And they all share the following additional characteristic: They represent an attempt to get at the core scientific material used in current embryonic stem-cell research without actually destroying an entity with the potential to someday achieve personhood.

The scientific community, for its part, has approached all this sudden talk of new "alternatives" in a reasoned way (just as it previously approached all the "adult" stem-cell chatter). Scientists have evaluated the proposed alternatives, while also warning that some of them -- especially "altered nuclear transfer" -- are morally problematic in their own right. Most importantly, scientists have observed that none of these supposed alternatives can currently replace ongoing embryonic work; they're merely in the ideas stage. As Harvard stem-cell researcher George Daley put it last week in Senate testimony, "I support efforts to derive pluripotent stem cells by methods that would be ethically acceptable to all, but I do not support delaying the pursuit of medical research on existing human embryonic stem-cell lines while these more speculative methods are tested."

But alas, that appears to be the idea. This new talk of "alternatives" isn't simply an intellectual exercise divorced from any political context, or part of an ordinary scientific discussion. While the ideas themselves may originally have come from scientists, they're now being cherry-picked by those hoping to derail the House-approved bill to expand embryonic stem-cell research funding. In essence, a grab bag of untested ideas is being flung forward to save the White House the embarrassment of having to use a veto. In short, the strategy is spilling yet more distortion and misrepresentation in a debate that has already seen saturation levels of both.

Meanwhile, of course, there are still countless Americans waiting for cures, and the White House still has a stranglehold on funding for the research in which they've vested so much hope.

Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and a columnist for The American Prospect Online. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.

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