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Does human embryonic stem cell research get a fair chance?

The use of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) in research is of course highly controversial, raising ethical questions that for many people amount to serious dilemmas. In our April editorial we didn’t address the moral questions at all, but criticized recent efforts to discredit hESC research.

We’ve received two letters chiding us for the editorial. Though we can’t publish these letters in Nature Neuroscience, we are happy to discuss the matter on Action Potential. We invite the authors of the two letters to join us on the blog, and everyone else of course is also welcome to chip in.

Here are the links to the editorial, and the two pieces we discussed as examples for the new trick of spinning stem cell science against stem cell science. All are available for free:

Nature Neuroscience April 2007 editorial

Maureen L. Condic, “What We Know About Embryonic Stem Cells”, First Things, January 2007

The White House Domestic Policy Council, “Advancing Stem Cell Science Without Destroying Human Life”, January 2007


  1. Report this comment

    Ian Brooks said:

    Just having a cursory galnce whilst waiting between experiments; it seems that one of the big problems we as scientists must face is the general lack of understanding of “the scientific method”. This quote from the first article exemplifies this:

    “Despite these concerns, many continued to regard embryonic stem cells with hope, believing that further research would overcome these difficulties and harness the power of embryonic stem cells for the benefit of mankind.”

    It would seem the author doesn’t understand that this is how science works and we make progress. But, on the other hand, we as scientists (whether religously inclined or not) must deal with the ethical and moral questions that our work can raise. To re-use an overused aphorism “science doesn’t operate in a moral vacuum”.

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    Greg Davidson said:

    I am not sure what you mean by anti-science. I have a science background and am definitely not anti-science. It does not matter that embryonic stem cells may someday cure disease in the same way that we did not use Nazi data after world war 2 even though it may contain useful research. It is immoral to destroy human embryos and therefore there should be no support for doing so. History shows that just because it is possible to scientifically do something, it doesn’t mean we ought to.

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    Ispy said:

    What happens to the emryos if they are not implanted? Aren’t they discarded or are they turned over to the Christian Coalition and put up for adoption?

  4. Report this comment

    Noah Gray said:

    In response to a previous post, the issue is not whether a stance of “anti-science” is being taken and assumed, but rather how an “anti-scientific” approach to this debate is one new weapon employed by those who oppose human embryonic stem cell research.

    In an attempt to supplement the moral arguments against it, the shortcomings of the science behind stem cell research are now projected to the public in a way that paints a picture of hopelessness regarding the future of such work. These criticisms, although justified to a certain extent, should not be exploited as an excuse to stop all funding that supports stem cell research, but rather as a platform from which to nurture future studies designed to propel the field beyond such challenges.

    As the editorial states, it is important to maintain both the moral debate as well as the scientific debate, but to exploit (and potentially misrepresent) the problems faced by science to justify a moral stance is “anti-scientific”.

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    Annette Markus said:

    In response to Greg Davidson, I find the comparison of hESC research to Nazi atrocities rather offensive!

    In response to Ispy, the “parents” of frozen embryos have a choice to just keep them frozen indefinitely (presumably that would cost them some serious annual fees), destroy them, donate them to research (which cannot be funded by federal grants of course, but there are now private and state hESC research initiatives), or indeed, there is the option to donate the embryos to other infertile couples. There’s also a Christian “embryo adoption” program, which is mentioned on page 23 of the White House Report. See . According to that website there are currently 400.000 frozen embryos in the US, and 134 children have been born from adopted frozen embryos since 1997. So that is not really an option for the vast majority of frozen embryos.

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    Luis Rodriguez MD said:

    Embrionic stem cells?

    Better name is blastocystic stem cells.

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    Ian Brooks said:

    Luis: I think Lee M. Silver covers exactly this issue in his excellent book “Challenging Nature”. The use of the word embryo is both emotive and incorrect…

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    Zachary Tong said:

    “….several studies over the past five years have raised concerns that the longer embryonic stem cells are maintained in the laboratory (or, presumably, in the tissues of adult human patients), the more likely they are to convert to malignant cancer cells.”

    “…it is clear that some, if not all, embryonic stem cells undergo this conversion, and the factors controlling the transition are not well understood.”

    This isn’t anything unusual for cells that constantly divide. Mutating DNA is ridiculously easy. Most of the time these defects in the genetic code are caught and corrected by our cells. Occasionally genetic mutations are not fixed and mutated DNA is passed onto the daughter cell. These cells normally die because they are unable to sustain themselves. However, statistics demand that every once in a while a cell will have a mutation that A) does not maim its ability to live and B) becomes cancerous.

    Cells that divide often (such as stem cells), are more susceptible to mutations because there are more divisions for something to go wrong. Just as a stem cell living in vitro has the possibility to become cancerous, so does a normal skin cell. Skin cells divide often and are quite capable of producing cancerous cells. This is nothing unique to a stem cell. It is a trait shared by all cells that divide often.

    Singling out stem cells and saying “These can cause cancer!” is foolish and shows the author does not have a grasp of how the body works. Of course they can cause cancer. Every cell that divides has the capability to cause cancer. In addition, cells react wildly different when in vitro as compared to in vivo. There are thousands of interactions that occur inside a human body that can not be replicated inside a test tube. Many of these encourage mutated cells to die so they don’t further divide into cancerous cells.

    Furthermore, the article can be summed up as “We haven’t been able to grow a human liver yet, and we have spent five years trying. We should just quit now because its too hard”. The article rails on current scientific efforts for not making astounding progress.

    How many years did it take to work out Newtonian physics? How long has quantum been in development? Oh, whats that, we still haven’t mastered physics? I think we should probably stop studying it, we’ve spent over 100 years trying to get it right! What a waste of time!

    This is foolish and irrational reasoning. Embryonic stem cells show huge promise. Just because we don’t understand how they work yet does not mean they cant. The human body is just as complicated as the quantum universe. There are millions of interactions occuring in millions of locations which all produce a single human being. Of course this isn’t going to be easy to solve.

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    Ian Brooks said:

    Zachary eloquently discusses some of the mistreated science behind “their” arguments, but what we still fail to address are “their” moral arguments. To be honest, I don’t think a certain percentage will come around to a pro-stem cell POV because it impinges too closely on their moral (read religious) beliefs. We need to take the time to discuss with people their views, for example, ensoulment. Embryos have a soul because they’re destined to be people is their argument. We need to address this issue without offending anyone…Something I rather enjoy doing I have to admit. I might not convert someone’s POV but it certainly gives them food for thought when you discuss identical twins, teratomas,HeLa cells…

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    Beverly B. Nuckols, MD said:

    Frankly, where is the “scientific” (not to mention ethical) justification for demanding public funding of science without public restraints?

    The editors suggested that I post my letter to them to this board. Here it is:

    To the Editors,

    I was surprised to read an unattributed editorial in the April, 2007 Nature Neuroscience, (“Shaky arguments against stem cells”) critical of the essay in First Things by Maureen Condic, Ph.D. While emphasizing the “conservative Roman Catholic” background of the ethics journal, she is accused of “spinning” science “to fit an anti-scientific purpose.” It appears that NN’s anonymous editors’ purpose is much less scientific that Dr. Condic’s unless we’re discussing political science.

    There is no expression of disagreement about Dr. Condic’s facts or her credentials to comment on the subject of embryonic stem cells and it is noted that she does not engage in making “fundamental moral arguments.” Those anonymous authors seem most offended that she commented at all. The editorial, published without identifying the authors, reflects a deep bias and a “spin” of its own, discrediting your journal and “distorting the state of the field,” indeed.

    Beverly B. Nuckols, MD

    New Braunfels, Texas

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    Brian Gillin said:

    Annette Markus: “According to that website there are currently 400.000 frozen embryos in the US, and 134 children have been born from adopted frozen embryos since 1997. So that is not really an option for the vast majority of frozen embryos.”

    The “vast majority” of those four hundred thousand embryos are being reserved for what they were created for in the first place: future attempts at pregnancy. The pro-ESCR crowd love hyping up the 400,000 number and alleging that there are this many just waiting to be thrown down the garbage disposal. Not exactly.

    Ian Brooks: “The use of the word embryo is both emotive and incorrect…”

    Actually, it’s not. What is scientifically groundless is this invented term “pre-embryo,” created to divert laypeople from the facts of the issue.

    “To be honest, I don’t think a certain percentage will come around to a pro-stem cell POV because it impinges too closely on their moral (read religious) beliefs.”

    Are you suggesting that those who do not believe in a higher power can have no moral beliefs? I’ve met a decent number of atheists who would disagree with you. I’ve also met atheists who oppose destroying embryonic human beings. Apparently, you don’t have to be a fundamentalist to speak out against this.

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    Ian Brooks said:

    I would disagree with Dr. Nuckols on the editors’ use of rhetoric in their opinion. The anti-ES campaigners have been using such techinques for a while, and I think it only fair that “we” engage in similar tactics from “our” side. Furthermore, I don’t think that anybody is suggesting that the public should be kept from the debate. Indeed, the contrary argument is true; the public need to be more engaged in the debate about ES research fundung, and only by bringing issues such as these to light do we have any hope of of being little more than a voice in the wilderness against a better organised and often better motivated oposition.

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    Noah Gray said:

    In response to Dr. Nuckols: The Nature Publishing Group family of journals has not revealed the authors of editorials for decades because the editorial is exactly that; the opinion of the editorial team. Therefore, one only needs to access the masthead of the journal to determine the identity of the authors.

    Getting back to the point, I feel like I am repeating myself, but it seems that many of these comments written above misinterpret the hypothesis of the editorial, which suggests that one new and current strategy of those opposed to ES cell research is to promote the failures of the science at the expense of the successes. In this way, much of the emotional language regarding the moral high ground is removed, leaving a simple debate about practicality. It is indeed a clever strategy and an effective one, especially when addressing those in funding agencies or philanthropic institutions who are looking to get the most from their research investment dollar. If these funding agencies are inundated with the failures of ES cell research, a simple cost-benefit analysis by the businessmen holding the purse strings could likely produce a reluctance to fund such a “hopeless” field. Therefore, specifically mobilizing the scientific failures to quash further progress in a particular field of study is indeed unscientific and nothing except political science.

    Dr. Nuckols, when bacteria began to acquire resistance to penicillin, was that a time to promote the hopelessness of future sterile medical procedures, or a time to invest in research designed to engineer replacement antibiotics? Given the prevalence of hospital-borne bacterial infections, I’m sure that your patients appreciate the past investment into chemical synthesis procedures that yielded ampicillin and cipro.

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    Beverly B. Nuckols said:

    I’m afraid I haven’t checked back here, and missed the response from Mr. Gray.

    While I have a “fundamental” aversion to killing any of our fellow humans and would love to discuss the ethics of embryo destruction for the purpose of scientific research, including the difference between bacteria and embryonic humans, my criticism of the editors was with their projection of accusing Dr. Condic of ""spinning" “to fit an anti-scientific purpose.” The assumption on the part of the editors was that the First Things essay was tactical “spin,” rather than taking Dr. Condic at her word. It appears to me that Dr. Condic believes that embryonic stem cell research is a dead end and that current evidence – while perhaps not definitive proof – adds up to support her belief.

    The whole subject of research funding is not scientific – there’s no scientific basis for advocacy for Federal funding — only personal preferences and politics.

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    Mr. Gunn said:

    Hi Mrs. Nuckols! I’m sure my comments won’t come as a surprise to you, considering that I’ve posted them in 3 or 4 other threads where you’ve made the same bad argument.

    “First Things”, the magazine in which the anti-stem cell research article was published, is a Catholic magazine. Surely one can forgive the editors for assuming a editorial published in a Catholic religious magazine attacking stem cell research and using circular reasoning to do so might be a little slanted.

    Neither Mrs. Nuckols nor Mrs. Condic want debate on this issue. They simply want to frame the discussion in a way that supports their previously decided-upon and strongly-held beliefs.

    It may be useful to relate the following dialogue I had with one of their colleagues.

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    Edward Furton said:

    A recommendation: if you want to assault a scientific colleague in your pages, at least have the decency to sign your editorial. Anonymous attacks on unsuspecting victims are not only mean-spirited and unfair, but contrary to basic journalistic standards.

  17. Report this comment

    Noah Gray said:

    As I listed in an earlier post – The Nature Publishing Group family of journals has not revealed the authors of editorials for decades because the editorial is exactly that; the opinion of the editorial team. Therefore, one only needs to access the masthead of the journal to determine the identity of the authors.

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    Christian Brugger said:

    I am embarrassed at the editors at NN. They engaged in a non-scientific editorial response: smear a colleage with ad hominems without examining her argument, simply because she dissents from an established orthodoxy. Badly done Editors!

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    Samer Helal Zaky said:

    Any application that aims to ameliorate our life -us humans, and gives us and our children hope to have “less-diseased” bodies should be welcomed on our tiny planet and we ought to provide the way to find this application. That’s how research works. Stem cell reserach, though not yet under clinical application, provides us this hope.

  20. Report this comment

    Paolo Vezzoni said:

    Unfortunately, two and two makes four even in a Roman Catholic Journal. The value of a sentence does not depend on being produced by a computer, a theologian, a scientist or even a Hollywood star. ES biology is an extremely interesting field and must be pursued. However, too often researchers go to politicians asking for money, promising benefits for public health, which is the only reason why governments release large funds.

    Again unfortunately, these promises too often are not fulfilled. I don’t feel offended if someone says that clinical benefits from ES cells are far away. The problem is that scientists think that politicians are stupid and that they will believe everything we tell them. As a matter of fact, after ten years we will be dealing with different politicians who will probably have forgotten our original lies of ten years ago. Do you remember gene therapy in the ‘90s?

    ES use must be pursued, but with true, logic and rational arguments. Otherwise it will be easily ridiculed by its adversaries. As an example, answer this question: give us a good estimate of how many years will it take for ES biologists to produce a tri-dimensional kidney suitable for transplant?

    Obviously, scientific advances cannot be foreseen and we can still hope that unexpectedly a beautiful mind will solve all the practical aspects of ES-based regenerative medicine in the next few years.

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    Gregory D. Pawelski said:

    Humans have 46 chromosomes: 23 come from the mother (egg); 23 from the father (sperm). An egg without a sperm has only 23 chromosomes; it must be “fertilized” by the sperm to be endowed with all the genetic information (carried on the DNA of the 46 chromosomes) required for life.

    All cells in the body are derived from this one fertilized egg. All the cells have the same chromosomes; the same DNA. What makes cells different is that different parts of the DNA are active in different cells. This activity is controlled by the activity of proteins and RNA (two things which are derived from the information carried by DNA).

    The fertilized egg is a stem cell, but it’s not the only stem cell. The fertilized egg divides into two cells and then four cells and then 8 cells. A stem cell can give rise to all of the tissues and organs necessary to make a human being. At a certain point, however, the stem cell becomes a “committed” cell. It can no longer make a human being. It can only make a certain type of tissue.

    The “first generation” method of making a stem cell is to take an egg from a woman and fertilize the egg with donor sperm (actually a bunch of eggs, as excess embryos are typically created in in vitro fertilization clinics at the same time; the excess eggs/embryos are stored in liquid nitrogen for possible latter use). The fertilized egg is allowed to divide several times in cell culture, resulting in a little ball of typically 4 – 16 stem cells; in effect, the earliest embryo. This first generation technology type of stem cell is objectionable to the Catholic Church.

    But stem cells will shortly be able to be created using a “second generation” technology. Take an adult skin cell; introduce a small number of genes which direct the “committed” adult skin cell to revert all the way back to an embryonic stem cell; potentially capable of not only being used for stem cell research, but potentially capable of developing into a human baby, given the proper growth conditions.

    This “second generation” technology stem cell would have the same genetic material and the same capabilities as a “first generation” technology stem cell. It would be the same cell as it was at the time it was a newly fertilized egg. It would genetically be an identical twin; a clone of the original fertilized egg, in every sense of the word. This “second generation” technology is acceptable to the Catholic Church.

    But the cells are the same. In one case, the cells are created by going forward (fertilizing an egg). In the other case, the cells are created by going backwards (introducing a handful of gene to reprogram the DNA of an adult cell, so that the cell reverts back to the state of a newly fertilized egg). But the cells potentially are the same, with the same potential for developing into a baby. In point of fact, it may well be that the first cloned human baby will come from this “second generation” technology and not from the “first generation” technology which everyone worries about. By officially sanctioning research into this “second generation” technology, the Catholic Church may actually be lending their support to a technology which has the greater potential for being used for a purpose they condemn (the cloning of a human).

    This is a very new development. The technology was first developed/reported in Japan. It’s now been independently confirmed at Harvard, currently the US leader, because they’ve got a lot of private money to do the work (Larry Weisenthal’s older daughter has been working with it at Harvard). California labs will shortly be up and running. Initial work has been done with mouse embryonic stem cells and mouse skin cells “turned back” to embryonic stem cells.

    It is hardly a remarkable event. All cells from a single individual have the same DNA. It’s only a matter of controlling which part of the total DNA is active. Everything is derived from that fertilized egg. There’s no reason a cell can’t be reprogrammed to return to precisely the state it was in which it was a primitive embryonic stem cell or the original stem cell — the fertilized egg itself.

    In terms of them being 100% identical, save for the 4 extraneous genes introducted to turn the non-pluripotent skin (somatic) cell back into a true embryonic stem cell, these genes would either silence themselves spontaneously or could be silenced using already available technology (e.g. RNA interference).

    There are a number of reasons to believe that it might actually be easier to clone a human by going backwards (2nd generation technology) than going forwards (first generation technology), which is based on introducing a somatic cell nucleus into a potentially “hostile” environment of an egg from a different person (who is not a clone of the individual from which the somatic cell nucleus was obtained).

    The scientific wing of the Catholic Church has not figured this out and is basically embracing this “2nd Generation Embryonic Stem Cell Technology” as a fig leaf for withdrawing from the stem cell wars, which is a Genie which has forever escaped from the bottle.

    The hypocrisy stemming from the Catholic Church is astounding. I guess God is in the test tube in the First Generation process, but no where to be found in the Second Generation process. God’s will just has no bearing at all on the 2nd process…..go figure. Fear not, when the Pope figures out the mistake here, the Catholic Church will try to squash any support and make everyone’s life miserable.

    People of Faith muck it up for humankind when they let their senseless and inconsistant edicts stand in the way of harmless research, makes the case stronger that their rules and beliefs make little sense.

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    Diego Toledo said:

    The debate about embryonic stem cells should not even be happening. The “embryo” that all these are people talking about is just a blastocystic ( an early stage of the embryo.) At this time it is just an organism with around 150 cells. If you do not implant the blastocystic in an ovule it will never become a human being. The stem cells are taken in this early stage of the embryo, the researches do not need to implant the blastocystic in the ovule. So, it is possible to conclude that the blastocystic will never become a human being, so why should we give status of human being to it? At this stage, it does not look in anything with a human being. Another important fact to add is that at this stage the blastocystic of a human being looks exactly the same like any other mammal, so why give status of human being to this embryo? I think most of the information that people get around is very inaccurate, there is a big lobby from religious institutions in this subject. These institutions are using misinformation as a weapon to scare the population that does not have much information about the subject. Is very important to know how to filter the information that is in the internet and TV. Usually when you ask someone about embryonic stem cell research, people think that the scientist are making experiences with small babies and extracting their arms and organs. It is a mistake think like that.

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    Action Potential said:

    Cells reverting back to their youth

    Since we had a long and involved conversation on the role of embryonic stem cells in research, as well as how this issue is politicized by both sides of the debate (with additional discussion here), recent news insists that we…

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    Action Potential said:

    The stem cell debate continues…

    Let’s move the debate from an earlier thread in a different direction, as I am getting a bit bored by that discussion. By the way, for those keeping score, Dr. Condic’s response to the editorial in question was published in…

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    sohaib said:

    Those who support stem cell research have been exposed to images of researchers dissecting human beings by opponents; similar to the extreme images used against abortion. Perhaps the issue here is that embryonic stem cells are commonly confused to be a form of abortion, and this all but true. One must understand that the key issue here deals with whether or not spare embryos from IVF clinics should be used for research rather than merely throwing them away or destroying them. Once one can understand this than they will realize perhaps that a frozen embryo in a clinic is more akin to a frozen unfertilized egg or frozen sperm than to a fetus naturally developing in the body of a mother. When it comes to invitro fertilization, extraordinary human action is required to initiate a successful pregnancy (this process requires the creation of excess embryos to find the desired one), while in the case of an abortion, an international human act is required to terminate the pregnancy. It does not follow that using those supernumerary embryos from the IVF procedures (mounts to abortion, in fact it is considered pro life).