Friday, September 12, 2008

Magical Stem Cells

There has been much furor over Joseph Biden's campaign trail comments implying hypocrisy on the part of those who care about children born with birth defects but oppose "stem cell research". Most of the response has centered around the implicit (or not) reference to little Trig Palin, but what seemed to slip by was the implication regarding stem cells.

Of course, Biden follows the approved script by using the generic phrase "stem cells" without distinguishing between adult and embryonic stem cells. Nobody objects to using adult stem cells, which nobody has to die to donate. Only embryonic stem cells cause the moral problem, because someone has to die to provide them.

But the real hollowness of Biden's statement lies in the implicit promise that stem cell research could somehow, someday yield a treatment or cure for a genetic condition like Down's Syndrome.

I've stayed abreast of developments in all forms of stem cell research for years. I've seen outrageous claims made by ESC evangelists, but never have I heard even the most rabid propagandist go so far as to claim that stem cell therapies could cure or treat Down's syndrome. Yet nobody blinked when Biden made this outrageous statement that didn't have a shred of scientific backing.

Why not?

Because embryonic stem cells are magical.

That's right: magical. To the modern mind and imagination, embryonic stem cells play the same role as magic did for prior generations. The "promise" of embryonic stem cells fits into the same imaginative niche as the Philosopher's Stone did for the Renaissance alchemist. Once located and the secrets unlocked, All Things will be possible, be it the transmutation of elements or freedom from weakness and decay.

Anyone who bothers to research the nascent field of cellular therapy knows this to be nonsense. Truly revolutionary changes in medical treatment, such as antibiotics and x-rays, have long since been made. The stem cell treatments that have been developed - all with adult stem cells, of course - are simply more tools in the array of options available. No miracles, no restoration of youth, often simply the arresting of a deteriorating condition - real progress, but slow and undramatic. Even if therapies were eventually developed from embryonic stem cells, the same results could be expected.

But anything so prosaic as the facts cannot hold a candle to the glittering promise of one of the oldest of human myths: eternal youth and vibrant health. Every race and culture has tales of the elixir or fountain that postpones the ravages of age, or the hidden valley or castle whose residents remain forever youthful and vigorous. Typically only The Worthy are fit to discover these wonders, though the definition of Worthy has varied by time and culture. To some, it would be the most triumphant warrior; to others, the most innocent or just plain lucky. One suspects that the modern criteria would be sufficient academic credentials and ample federal funding, but the idea is the same. The longing for immortality, the dread of the pain and humiliation of disease and aging - these are potent forces even when we shove them to the back of our minds. We hunger for a solution, and are willing to sacrifice anything - even our own children - to the hope of attaining it.

Every age has magical hopes. For example, take the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. which was cutting edge science fiction in its day. At one point the protagonist is taken to the heart of the nearly magical Nautilus to be shown the source of its power. This turns out to be (drum roll, please): electricity. One can imagine the Victorian shivers at the potential of this mysterious wonder force. The modern reader, who probably knows more about electricity than the most advanced scientist of Verne's day, simply shrugs and asks, "Generated by what?" Actual knowledge and common usage has a way of demystifying the magical, because it forces people to face the practical limitations of grandiose ideas, and to come to grips with the problems as well as the potential of a solution. One gets that impression reading the actual scientific literature on stem cell research: the air of caution, the acknowledgment of how little is known, the qualified phrases used when discussing the potential for use of the research.

But none of this makes it into the press releases or the offhand comments by ambitious politicians. Those parties aren't interested in informing or instructing, they're interested in telling people what they want to hear, and the people want to hear about magic. Someday the research will bear fruit, and cellular therapies will take their place in the array of available medical treatments. People will look back with a smile on the early claims regarding these therapies. They'll wonder how anyone could have believed such things.

But of course, that age will have moved on to embrace their own magical hopes.

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