Reading between the lines on stem cells

April 20, 2009

As a science blogger, I’m supposed to parse science coverage in the popular media looking for flaws in hurried reporting on which I can simultaneously build my own reputation and perpetuate the cultural power struggle that is the myth of the Anti-Science Public.

Let me enter this world in what I hope is a cautious way, with a look at a recent NYTimes piece on the Obama administration’s partial lifting of the Bush stem cell funding restrictions.

Guidelines proposed by the National Institutes of Health to carry out an order made last month by President Obama would allow research with federal financing only on stem cells derived from surplus embryos at fertility clinics. The money would still be prohibited for stem cell lines created solely for research purposes and for embryos created through a technique known as therapeutic cloning.

Then comes a succession of three quotes giving three slants on the new rules.

[1.] “I think it’s a big step forward,” said Richard O. Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “although there are aspects of stem cell research that will still be outside federal funding.”

Fair enough. Pretty neutral.

[2.] Others called the proposed rules a sellout.

“I’m disappointed,” said Dr. Irving Weissman, the director of the Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine Institute at Stanford. Dr. Weissman accused the health institutes of “putting this ideological barrier in the way” of treating disease.

I might be splitting hairs but the bit about “treating disease” made me look twice. Irv Weissman is the dean of stem cell research in the U.S. And as he himself will tell you, stem cell science is hyped to the point that clinical research on them often has a wafer-thin rationale. (Clinical trials are the things you do when you want to develop a treatment by figuring out its dosing, safety and relative effectiveness compared with standard therapy.)

See his comments for my 2007 SciAm.com story about the therapeutic potential of adult stem cells:

Weissman says that most clinical studies of stem cells fail to meet what he sees as key criteria: They should be based on clear, peer-reviewed demonstrations of tissue regeneration, replicated by a large number of independent groups that provide rapid, long-lasting benefits.

I have no idea if the paraphrased part of Weissman’s quote in the Times was accurate. Either way, it comes off as your standard keeping-the-science-faith quote, bristling at what are perceived as willful restrictions on Science and its Progress. Values drive science policy decisions, after all.

Finally, the willful get their voice too:

[3.] Abortion opponents predicted that the administration would soon embrace less restrictive stem cell policies.

“This is clearly part of an incremental strategy to desensitize the public to the concept of killing human embryos for research purposes,” said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.

Um, killing? Beg the question much? But aside from the moralizing aspect I agree that we seem to be watching an incremental game here, which makes me wonder why the two scientists quoted above didn’t have a more positive spin.

It’s a big face-saving negotiation, I guess. When you’ve squawked for years about unfair funding restrictions, you can’t up and say, “Hey this rule change is awesome! We see the light at the end of the tunnel!” You’d look like a schmuck and maybe get treated like one.

Ditto for the other side. The National Right to Life Committee can’t be all, “We got our way for a while and it was totally awesome! So fine, do whatever.”

I would like to see stem cells gradually become depoliticized. This Kabuki dance could be consistent with that but I think an important next step would be to acknowledge that the logical opposite of the National Right to Life Committee is not Irv Weissman. It is a pro-stem cell citizens group. The subject of whether and how to fund stem cell research is not a scientific one. It’s a moral-ethical-political one.

Pitting scientists on one side vs. political activists on the other makes it sound like science can give us the answer what to do with stem cells, and it keeps the door open to further politicization of the science.

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