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The Real Power of Stem Cells

A week ago, two teams of scientists announced they had successfully produced the equivalent of human embryonic stem cells by “reprogramming” skin cells, without the need to use embryos. It was a much hoped-for and anticipated development, and very welcome news. And the transformation of the stem cell debate in just the few days since has been nothing short of amazing.

Witness this article in yesterday’s New York Times. Nothing like it could have been written before last Tuesday—and not just because of the way it begins to speak of the stem cell debate in the past tense, but because of the honesty with which it speaks of the realities and limits of stem cell research: “Scientists still face the challenge of taking that abundant raw material and turning it into useful medical treatments, like replacement tissue for damaged hearts and brains,” the Times notes, “and that challenge will be roughly as daunting for the new cells as it has been for the embryonic stem cells.

That daunting challenge, and the likelihood that, quite apart from one federal funding policy or another, treatments using such cells will likely not be possible for many years (if ever), were never much on the lips of Times reporters and editorialists in the past.

The article even notes that until last week’s announcement, there was only one way to create genetically matched pluripotent stem cells:

Some scientists have been trying to make disease-specific embryonic cells by creating a cloned embryo of a person with the disease. But that effort requires women to undergo sometimes risky treatments to donate their eggs.

In the past, when the paper has mentioned this technique, they did not admit so frankly that human cloning was involved or that women were at risk. Just this past June, speaking of exactly the same method, the Times noted that researchers:

want to develop embryonic stem cells by nuclear transfer, the replacement of an egg nucleus with one from an adult cell. A major benefit of nuclear transfer would be to walk a patient’s cell back to an embryonic state so disease processes could be better understood.

They dared not call it cloning, or mention any drawbacks. Only now that science may have provided a way around the ethical (and therefore political) dilemma, and that, as the godfather of embryonic stem cell research James Thomson told the Times last weekend “a decade from now, [the stem cell wars] will be just a funny historical footnote,” can they speak openly about what they had so long been advocating.

It is to Thomson’s credit (and to that of all the many other stem cell researchers quoted in the press this past week) that he’s willing to speak frankly about how momentous this advance may really be. He’s willing, too, to see the consequences for the political fight over stem cells—and they are good consequences for both sides of the argument: the science can go forward without raising ethical concerns. (Unsurprisingly, some of the politicians involved in the fight seem to want the argument more than the science.)

It seems, though, that even the New York Times—which has been tenaciously partisan and frankly dishonest in its advocacy for embryo-destructive research in the past decade—now sees that the fight may be drawing to a close, and it’s time to put away the word games and speak openly about what has always been at stake. If these new cells can make the Times do that, maybe they really are a panacea.


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