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Frist's stem-cell confusion

I have never been so personally affected by a politician as last Friday when Sen. Bill Frist announced his support of embryonic stem-cell research. In my view, there is no single person capable of greater influence on the subject than the Senate majority leader, who is also a physician. Unfortunately, because he maintains his decision is also consistent with his pro-life views, there s no single person who could have confused the issue more.

So although I have written on this subject ad nauseam, a moral lapse as great as this on the part of the senator requires an attempt to return clarity to the issue. With that in mind I read in detail the complete text of his statement. Although I found a number of vagaries and inconsistencies, his position most heavily relies on two characteristics of embryonic stem cells mistakenly described as “unique.” They are pluripotency and capacity to multiply. Consider the following quotes taken from the text of his statement.

For those who may be swayed by the senator’s announcement, I assure you, there is sound rebuttal of his assertions. According to more than 15 recent publications in leading and peer-reviewed scientific journals, adult stem cells have the same pluripotency and/or capacity to multiply as embryonic stem cells.

The most recent and groundbreaking publication, by Dr. John Huard, director of the Growth and Development Laboratory at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, confirms that adult stem cells have the same ability as embryonic stem cells to multiply. This publication appears in the July 2005 edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell. The paper is appropriately under consideration for Molecular Biology of the Cell paper of the year.

Other data clearly demonstrate the ability of adult stem cells to form heart, liver, kidney, muscle, brain, nerve, insulin-producing, hair, skin, lung, retina, intestinal and spleen cells. The data also demonstrate that adult stem cells have the ability to regenerate damaged tissue. (A detailed list of supporting references is available on request to my e-mail address below, as is a list of adult stem cell applications for 65 human diseases.)

Along that vein and as the senator states, cures are the real goal, i.e., not padding the coffers of the biotech industry. I therefore must also address a primary hurdle in the future application of ESCR. That is a hurdle with which Dr. First is quite familiar as a transplant surgeon – immune rejection.

Speaking as a scientist, it is inconceivable that immune rejection will be overcome using leftover embryos from IVF clinics. This is primarily due to differences in the biological make-up of the embryo and the potential patient.

Think about it. No one can randomly donate blood or an organ to just anyone on the street. A “match” is required if even the hope for a successful transfusion or transplant is to be realized. This fundamental requirement in transfusion and transplant procedures also ironically corroborates the pro-life position that the embryos are individual and distinct human life from conception. To overcome the hurdle of immune rejection, it is therefore quite likely that expanded ESCR will lead to therapeutic cloning.

Only therapeutic cloning – that is making a cloned embryo of yourself to harvest embryonic stem cells – is likely to overcome the rejection hurdle inherent in embryonic stem-cell therapies. This pursuit would ironically be in direct violation of the senator’s proposed principles regarding stem-cell research that include “banning embryo creation for research” and “banning human cloning.”

How, then, do I explain Sen. Frist’s decision and position? Sadly, I can’t; but given the overwhelming evidence that embryonic stem cells do not “uniquely” possess the cited properties of pluripotency and capacity to multiply but rather share these properties with adult stem cells – and given the likelihood that expansion of ESCR will lead to therapeutic cloning – it remains good sense, good science and good policy to oppose expanded public funding.

No matter what politicians say.