A magazine’s cover story is typically not only the most compelling article in the issue but also the piece that best represents what the magazine is about. And our cover story in this issue-on the hunt for the human embryonic stem (ES) cell-offers a fine example of what the new Technology Review is all about. It combines cutting-edge research, a huge potential commercial payoff, important policy and ethical issues, and heated controversy.
Writer Antonio Regalado provides excellent reporting on an important area of biotechnology that has been given scant coverage by the major media. The cloning of Dolly the sheep last year elicited a tidal wave of attention; the announcement by John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University that he had isolated human ES cells raised hardly a ripple. That’s surprising, because the identification of human ES cells may have more impact on our species than Dolly ever will.
These remarkable cells are a tabula rasa for the human organism. Found in early-stage embryos, they are capable of differentiating into any other kind of human cell or tissue. If medical researchers could identify and reliably manipulate ES cells, it might open the door to being able to grow any kind of human replacement tissue-perhaps even whole organs such as new human hearts or livers.
But there are huge obstacles to that dramatic payoff. In addition to overcoming severe technical problems, researchers must negotiate thorny political and ethical dilemmas. That’s because the biologists hunting for human ES cells use as starting material either fertilized human embryos left over from fertility clinics or human fetuses culled from abortions. These sources of tissue have led to threats against the researchers from some extreme members of the pro-life movement. The controversy has frightened away many researchers and most biotech companies.
Part of the problem is that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds most basic biomedical research in the United States, has been prevented from getting involved in this area by a ban on federal funding for research involving human embryos. As a result, the only funding comes from the few biotech firms willing to take the risk. And when the only funding is private, researchers have a reduced incentive to publish their work (preferring instead to submit it directly to the Patent Office). What is more, their research doesn’t get discussed at major scientific meetings; nor does it get the kind of ethical review that is given to publicly funded efforts such as the Human Genome Project.
The hunt for human ES cells must come out into the light. The ethical questions are too large for it to stay closeted and the potential payoff is too significant for the field to remain tiny and secretive. But bringing it out will require political courage from the White House, Congress and the NIH. The ban on research involving human embryos needs to be overturned, bringing federal funding to this area, along with the concomitant oversight. The stakes are too high for the hunt for human embryonic stem cells to remain behind closed doors.