Business Impact

Courage Needed

From the Editor in Chief

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.

This story is part of our July/August 1998 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

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.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Business Impact

How technology advances are changing the economy and providing new opportunities in many industries.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.