Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Future is Biotech

The future is here

From The Statesman

The recent breakthrough in stem cell research carried out independently in Japan and the USA, by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and James A Thomson with his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, shows another path to human rejuvenation, including a cure for many incurable diseases.

By reprogramming a human skin cell, the researchers have been able to bring it back to its original pure embryonic stage, a pluripotent stage from where the cell could be coaxed to become any of the 220 specialised human cells, for example, heart, lungs, brain, muscle cells, which could be used for customised therapeutic healing. A brain-injured person could live a full, healthy life again. That is the future, perhaps.

The awesome beauty of this discovery is that the process of reversion of a skin cell to its de novo embryonic stage does not involve the destruction of embryos, which many pro-life people from President George W Bush to the late Pope John Paul II condemned as immoral. President Bush has steadfastly denied the use of federal funds “to promote science that destroys life to save life,” despite the fact that most Americans have never been with him on this issue.

Dr Bill Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon by training, who was Senate majority leader (2003-2007), for example, spoke for most Americans, when he said: “I am pro-life, I believe human life begins at conception. I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported.” Former First Lady Nancy Reagan said: “Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to alleviate so much suffering. Surely, by working together we can harness its life-giving potential.” Her husband, President Ronald Reagan, spent the last years of his life in Alzheimer’s limbo.

President Bush, nonetheless, repeatedly said, "my way or the highway". You see the power of presidential leadership; and also its limitations because he could not stop the private funding of embryonic stem cell research by states, biotechnology companies, and private universities who have been pursuing the research regardless of the opposition. For example, in 2004 California voters approved a $3-billion bond to promote research in the state.

Since last year, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute has been doing research using the Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer process to create specific cell lines from cloned human embryos, which again raised hopes for millions of people suffering from incurable diseases. Harvard research is said to be diseases specific; for example, the nucleus of a skin cell of a diabetic patient is inserted into an unfertilised donor egg, from which the nucleus has been removed. The newly engineered composite egg is nurtured in a Petri dish to develop into an early embryo from which embryonic stem cell lines is developed and guided into becoming healthy insulin producing pancreatic islet cells to replace the diseased ones, for example, in a child suffering from juvenile diabetes.

It is painful to imagine how much a child with juvenile diabetes suffers; or how much the family members endure as they see the wasting away of their loved one with the knowledge that one day if the stem cell research continued there might be hope for a most emaciating human illness. Anytime an older person forgets the name of his own children, you wonder if this could be the beginning of a slow end. In the USA, people look to science and medicine for salvation. They know embryonic stem cells could be the beginning of a new life for persons suffering from fatal ailments. Stem cells that are derived from aborted and discarded embryos could be potentially directed to grow into any kind of specialised cells to repair damaged human parts and trigger a self-regenerative process in the human body. It is an example of how killing life can save lives.

Choosing life over potential life is practical ethics at its best, it has been argued.

Though many people favour embryonic stem cell research, pro-lifers argue that research in regenerative and therapeutic medicine and technology should not be left to the marketplace because somewhere in the process life begins. The late pope John Paul II urged that a “free and virtuous society, which the USA aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death.”

The Pope was afflicted with Parkinson’s, one of the millions of sufferers of the debilitating disease but he never wavered, and warned “how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide…”

That’s why many Americans could not ignore the late Pope’s warning that the destruction of embryos to extract stem cells, even when the purpose is to fight diseases and reduce human suffering, would dehumanise us. Stem cell revolution is as momentous as was the smashing of an atom; therefore, it needs safeguards to harness its benefits without the coarsening of our conscience.

The recent development of reprogramming skin cells into embryonic stages offers scientists an equally fertile method of developing cell therapy, which will make destruction of embryos unnecessary. Science has solved its own ethical dilemmas. The discovery also illustrates the concept of “equifinality” in general systems theory, according to which a dynamic system, if challenged, could reach the same goal by other means. There is always an alternative.

And thereby hangs another question: Is human body nothing but an information system that could be reprogrammed cell by cell? We will talk about human soul some other time.

(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University. The author of Digital Freedom, he is working on a new book, This is the American Way.)

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Frist says he is pro-life because he believes life begins at conception. But yet he supports embryonic research. “The embryonic period begins with fertilization and ends eight weeks later” http://virtualhumanembryo.lsuhsc.edu/HEIRLOOM/Stages/HEP.htm

    How then can he say he is pro-life?