September 06, 2006

The Kevorkianization of Stem Cell Research

Believe it or not I was working on a column about the dangers of well-intentioned but hype-seeking stem cell researchers - finished it actually - before the Advanced Cell Technology people decided that the correct way to please the right to life crowd was to take IVF embryos (all together now, chant with the predictable pro-life response: "IVF=murder") that have been put through genetic diagnosis ("PGD=eugenics") and grow their cells in a way that might or might not yield good stem cell colonies but likely would produce at least a few totipotent cells as a byproduct ("cloning is evil").

To make sure the experiment aimed at pleasing pro-life would actually work, they tried it on 16 embryos first, then killed them all (Inside the mind of Richard Doerflinger: "please, please let these guys stay in the paper just one more day...") and justified the fact that none of the people who were supposed to love their experiment actually did by calling them (Lanza's words) "irrational" ("scientist=athiest or anti-catholic").

If there is a school to teach scientists how to screw up the pursuit of PR, ACT has the professors on retainer.

What is so puzzling is that the piece that reported this great innovation [well, great in the mind of William Hurlbut, though not particularly interesting to anybody who doesn't buy the science or ethics of these continuing, idiotic schemes to make "part embryos" in order to get Bush money] in Nature was interesting - at the level of a piece that merits publication in Nature - only because it was supposed to solve the ethics problem by appeasing those who seek embryonic cells created without an embryo. Hence there was no PR officer, just the ethicist, since the whole business amounts to an "ethics experiment."

So here is the ethicist and Lanza, the former constantly (and inaccurately) referred to as "unpaid" as though he spoke from a distance, defensively spinning this experiment rather than bothering to even consider the objections raised by those whom the experiment was supposed to please. It was like reading that "ask the ethicist" nonsense in The New York Times: as recently as yesterday Green was actually quoted as saying that if it weren't for all this controversy, there might be tons of new stem cell lines very soon [without any destruction of embryos] (which the experiment didn't prove), and that - my favorite - the controversy about the experiment just proves that there is lots of interest in this work.

Go team. Except, not.

The controversy proves unambiguously that ACT can cause half of the U.S., including the intended audience to be appeased, to believe that the people with whom they disagree are not so much trying to respect their beliefs as to create monstrous half-embryo things using technologies that only Frankenstein could love - and then to duck and cover when things go badly. And to sell it all with the ethicist who is "unpaid" doing PR. ACT has been through four or five cycles of scandal, depending on who is counting, each time repeating the same cycle of misbehavior. It's time to stop blessing these guys with ethics PR. Please, Ron, give it up before ACT becomes the undoing of embryonic stem cell research.

I've already read five commentaries by major conservatives comparing ACT to Hwang. It is awful and irresponsible but you guys are asking for it. Can't we just be honest and say that we favor embryonic stem cell research, at least for now, since that's what happens at ACT (and since it is true), even though the research destroys embryos? Can't we just say that the Bush policy is idiotic and that the new "alternatives fund" is worse yet? Must you pander to the neocons?

I continue to be amazed at the degree to which this company manages to do more harm to the battle to get embryonic stem cell research funded than could any concerted right wing campaign against the research. ACT is the Kevorkian of stem cell research.

Of course, having written this piece before ACT lept out into the sun, I used my friend Ian Wilmut's recent experiences in the same vein to make the point. The enemy of my enemy, in the case of stem cell research, is not necessarily my friend. Jack Kevorkian didn't do much for end of life care or the battle to provide hospice care. And the mantle of Kevorkian has been handed over to ACT, or at least that is what I claim in the September issue of The Scientist:

Since the cloning of Dolly the sheep, research involving nuclear transfer-derived cells - and intelligent debate about that research - has been plagued by a phenomenon you might call "kevorkianization." Whatever your view of physician-assisted suicide, the now-legendary convicted felon Jack Kevorkian was the last person on earth who should have been the public advocate for the procedure. Dropping off cadavers in a rusty Volkswagen van on the way to press conferences, he turned euthanasia into reality TV, extolling wisdom about the wishes and conditions of his "patients" and promoting a chain of euthanasia shops.

Kevorkian's untimely decision to make theater out of coping with suffering at the end of life resulted in the total collapse of public discussion about the national need to improve hospice care, nursing homes, and Medicare. To this day, far more attention has been focused on assisted suicide in Oregon than on the drug needs of elderly citizens.

And so it is with the manipulation and engineering of cells. In February 1997, Ian Wilmut kevorkianized nuclear transfer. First, he elected to label the most revolutionary and complex exercise of human procreative control in history as "cloning," conjuring up inaccurate images of a Xerox machine that would yield two, say, Kate Beckinsales. Worse, the first "clone" was named after Dolly Parton, the well-endowed country music singer, because the embryo was engineered in part from adult sheep mammary cells. Wilmut gave his first press conferences unprepared to face questions about why anyone would birth a mammal using nuclear transfer without first holding, at a minimum, an ethical discussion about the implications for humans and agriculture. He was clearly horrified by the subsequent misuse of the word cloning by the media, and was the first to embrace the harried explanations by bioethicists that a cloned human wouldn't be an actual copy.

But the sheep had already been labeled. The world went nuts in a mad rush to ban everything remotely related to nuclear transfer. Efforts to keep discourse civil in the wake of the naming of "clones" were made even more difficult by the parade of lunatics who wanted to make one: Remember the UFO cult, the Raelians, and physicist Richard Seed? Later, that was quieted by the steady flow of information about the agricultural and medical benefits of cloning.

Scientists such as Wilmut were leaders once it became clear how to lead. He was quick to say that human cloning would be wrong, and he and I actually coauthored an approach to regulating human cloning to help in that effort. But have other high-profile members of the scientific community learned from early mistakes with euthanasia and cloning that the wrong way to approach scientific innovation of great public import is to throw it like a pie into the face of the unprepared public? I'm not so sure.

During the unraveling of Hwang Woo Suk in South Korea, even Wilmut decided that he would seize the moment to make a very public start of making cloned human embryos, and publishing a book in which he reverses himself on his previous moral objections by embracing reproductive cloning. The timing is doubly bad for the public's perception of cloning, because Wilmut found himself fending off likely unwarranted charges that he had essentially no right to claim authorship in the key scientific paper about Dolly. The anti-abortion, anti-stem cell research crowd could not have designed a more effective PR perfect storm...

[Read the rest of the article here]

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