Religious groups slow scientific progress

AUSTIN, Texas, (U-Wire) — Anytime ethicists and religious groups are getting involved with scientific inquiry it’s a good idea to cringe and prepare for the worst. Currently various underworked philosophers and relentless religious zealots are doing their best to stamp out all progress in human embryonic stem cell research.
Embryonic stem cells are “undifferentiated.” This means they can develop into any type of human tissue. Exactly how stem cells engineer themselves into liver cells, muscle cells or brain tissue is one of the outstanding mysteries of modern biology. If the process of cellular differentiation can be understood and controlled, then researchers would have a new arsenal with which to attack diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and auto-immune disorders. The more exotic hopes include growing entire organs, or at least large swaths of organ tissue, for use during surgery. It’s possible that such tissue would not be rejected by the immune system.
But don’t expect the mystery to be solved soon because the anti-science, back-to-the-stone-age religious zealots are finding yet another reason to demonize scientific progress.
Last week the American Cancer Society withdrew its sponsorship of a stem cell research advocacy group called Patients’ Cure after meeting with representatives from the Catholic Church, according to a report by the New York Times.
Needless to say, the so-called problem the church has with stem cell research centers on where researchers acquire embryonic stem cells for study. The possibility that human fetuses from induced abortions or the unused products of in vitro fertilization are being used for fetal cell research has the Catholic Church up in arms.
It’s not clear whether the church muscled the ACS or not. The ACS denies it. The issue is so sensitive that the Austin Chapter of the ACS was not allowed to comment and referred questions to their National Headquarters.
Joann Schellenbach, the ACS National Director of Media relations, provided The Daily Texan with the ACS’ unpublished rebuttal to the basic implication of the New York Times story — that the ACS has allowed threats from religious organizations to influence its medical decision making.
Unfortunately, the rebuttal, written by John R. Seffrin, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the ACS, is a strange and inconsistent mixture of scientific and ethical statements that obviously tries to appease those on all sides of the question. Perhaps the Times’ editors chose not to publish it to save Dr. Seffrin some embarrassment. For example, he begins the rebuttal by saying that stem cell research holds “extraordinary promise.”
Then he claims that the ACS doesn’t have an official position on stem cell research and therefore could not possibly have reversed itself.
Well, here is the policy position that the ACS should embrace: “Damn the fanatics, full speed ahead with embryonic stem cell research.”
Currently, there is a federal funding ban on any research that acquires cells from unused in vitro fertilized embryos or tissue from induced abortions. However, in order to sidestep this ridiculous obstruction of science, the White House has come up with a clever plan.
The private sector has no restrictions on acquiring embryonic stem cells. Once a non-federally funded laboratory acquires embryo tissue, regardless of its source, this tissue can be used to form an “immortal cell line.” A cell line is basically the culturing of tissue cells in vitro. The plan is to allow stem cells from these cell lines to be sent to National Institute of Health Laboratories for research purposes. Basically, privately funded labs will supply federally funded labs with embryonic stem cells that technically did not originate from the destruction of an embryo.
Currently, Rep. Jay W. Dickey Jr., (R-Ark.), is mustering support to plug this clever White House research loophole. Hopefully he will fail.
If the White House plan prevails, everybody wins — the Republicans can continue appeasing their scripture-driven fanatical voter base and the scientists get to continue the research that may ultimately alleviate the suffering of many millions of people.
Roahn Wynar’s column originally appeared in Thursday’s University of Texas-Austin paper.