Friday, February 3, 2012

Komen Update: Now It's Stem Cells

At least my corner of the Facebook world is abuzz with the news about Komen's severed relationship with Planned Parenthood. The news keeps rolling in, though, and multiple websites of both left and right have now posted that Komen is also removing funding from medical centers that also sponsor research on Embryonic Stem Cells. If I'm reading the news correctly, Komen is cutting off the funding simply because other researchers in the institution are doing ESC research. That must come as one hell of a shock to some bench or clinical researcher whose funding is being taken away because some PhD in a different building who has never even seen her does some totally unrelated science. Again, maybe I'm reading this wrong, and the story is changing rapidly.

Regardless, it removes the fig leaf that the Komen spokespeople used earlier this week indicating that the only reason why they pulled funding to Planned Parenthood is because they're under congressional investigation. That was always pretty flimsy, as the "investigation" could be better described as "a witch hunt by a zealot". Johns Hopkins University, however, is not under congressional investigation, and they're getting dinged $3.75 million collectively from Komen. It's now quite clear to anyone looking objectively that Komen has become a highly partisan political organization.

One friend of mine on Facebook who has no objections to Komen's new found policies has engaged in a back-and-forth about the rationale and implications of the move. Despite having two very strongly adversarial stands, we're getting through the discussion so far with generally polite verbal punch-counterpunches. When I posted the latest Komen news about the ESCs, the friend took a moment to point out this article from USA Today that suggests that Adult Stem Cell research is outpacing that of ESCs, so the argument may be settled on the scientific gridiron and not require the machina ex deus, so to speak, of religious objection. But I'm not so sure.

I heard a similar talk at Grand Rounds here a few months back, which is fine and may resolve the dispute. But the key word there is "may". Science often goes in all kinds of weird and unanticipated directions, and technologies that look pro...missing at first can be rapidly outpaced by advances in other areas. At the beginning of the 4th graf of the USA Today article closely, you'll see a big red warning sign: "[this] isn't a rigorous study". Pilot projects often look rosy, as anyone who remembers the hullabaloo surrounding gene therapy can easily recall. So I wouldn't put my chips on adult stem cells as being scientifically superior to embryonic cells just yet, and if ESC opponents are relying on the superiority of ASCs to settle the issue, what will they do if the research winds blow in a different direction? They can't have it both ways.

I don't deny that there must be ethical rules and regulations regarding biomedical research (if you've read these blog entries, I hope that you'll see I passionately care about such issues). The question is where one draws the lines and by what basis does the line-drawing occur. Though my comparison of many anti-abortion groups to Hezbollah may have seemed to be purely outrageous and deliberately provocative, it truly is an apt comparison, for like fundamentalist Islamists, fundamentalist Christians approach the world with a narrow literalism about scripture that is ultimately wildly hostile to a scientific worldview. The most obvious example of this is the Theory of Evolution, about which fundamentalists of every stripe from Des Moines to Dubai reject out of hand because it threatens their justifications for the social order (though, obviously, two different social orders there). Likewise, doing research on microscopic cells that no Christian even believed existed two centuries ago somehow rises to the level of demonizing the researchers as taking a life. To me, this is profound nonsense and becomes increasingly absurd with every new scientific advance in the field.

It's not yet possible, but it's not hard to conceive of a time where we could -artificially- create human embryos. What would the Pope, or Michelle Bachmann for that matter, say about this? Would this fall under the proscription of taking a life? We're already generating proto-viruses called "Virus-Like Particles" that allow us to work with these organisms in a Tinkertoy-like fashion. What if we could do the same with a human stem cell? What if the research on virus manipulation would allow us to make some kind of a "human-like particle"? It's not so terribly science-fiction to suppose this. Does this mean we should now halt all research that might even lead in that direction? I'm confident that both Muktada Al-Sadr as well as Pat Robertson think we should.

1 comment:

  1. UPDATE: this is a fast-moving story, indeed. According to CNN (, Komen has reversed its stand on Planned Parenthood. As far as can be divined at the moment, no such reversal has occurred with respect to institutions that sponsor ESC research.