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Christopher Reeve and the Politics of Stem Cells

From the editor in chief
December 1, 2004

When the actor Christopher Reeve died in October, in the closing days of the presidential campaign, I was in demand as a guest on news shows. I had published stories about embryonic stem (ES) cells at Red Herring and the Acumen Journal, two magazines I edited before coming to Technology Review. And in July 1998, before my time, Technology Review was one of the first magazines to publish a long article on ES cells.

Senator John Edwards suggested that ES cell research might have permitted the quadriplegic Reeve to walk. He implied that President Bush (who opposes ES cell research because human embryos are destroyed in the process of harvesting the cells) was complicit in Mr. Reeve’s suffering. That the president was suppressing science for political and religious reasons. Nonsense, retorted defenders of the administration, like senate majority leader Bill Frist: no scientist could say for sure what ES cells could do. Certainly, they wouldn’t have helped Christopher Reeve.

What, perplexed anchors asked, was the truth?

I explained that ES cells were pluripotent entities, able to differentiate into any kind of cell in the human body (a capacity the writer Christopher Scott winningly calls “a kind of single-celled egalitarianism”). In theory, I said, ES cells might be used to treat any disease caused by cell loss or the loss of cell function – for example, Reeve’s spinal-cord injury. But, I warned, there were no avowable examples of ES cell treatments for humans. The nearest thing to ES cell therapy uses adult stem cells, but the treatment is only in trials. Also, Dr. Huang Hongyun, a neurosurgeon at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, has removed olfactory ensheathing glial cells – which promote the regeneration of olfactory neurons – from aborted human fetuses and injected them into the spinal cords of over 400 paralyzed patients, but it is not clear how, or whether, his treatment works. (Horace Freeland Judson, author of The Eighth Day of Creation, will write about Huang in Technology Review next month.)

For now, I said, the promise of ES cell research is scientific: the cell lines might help us understand the nature and progression of genetic diseases. Nevertheless, I told the anchors, it was very important: researchers might derive from an ES cell line the complete blueprint for a disease like breast cancer. Both presidential campaigns were misrepresenting the truth about ES cells and exploiting sympathy for the heroic Reeve.

This argument provoked two thoughts. The first was melancholy: the American public knows almost no biological science. The second was, critics of ES cell research are not really opposed to science and its palliative benefits. They hate a technology.

Scientific knowledge, I wish I had told the TV audience, is a kind of absolute good. No one can reasonably object to understanding cellular disease. But the techniques of scientific research are derived from technology, which is morally neutral. Any technology must exist in a fallen world of methods and ends, about which men and women can disagree. Our elected officials may, for political reasons or from genuine conviction, choose to regulate a technology. If enough of us disagree, we can throw them out of office.

Regardless of whether this issue has a decisive impact on the election, the election is certain to have a decisive impact on the future of ES cell therapy. President Bush, who seems sincerely disgusted by the whole subject, chose to ban federal funding of new ES cell lines. Senator Kerry promised to lift that ban were he elected. Come January, an already polarized debate is likely to become more bitter.

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