Somewhere, Yossarian is Laughing. Or: How Not to Fund Stem Cell Research at the NIH

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

The Bush Administration has once again managed to reach new levels of self-parody. This time, the subject is embryonic stem cell research, and they've taken a position on funding that quite literally incorporates a classic Catch-22 problem. Sadly, though, the Catch-22 lacks anything that bears the faintest resemblance to humor when it's used to block funding for potentially lifesaving research.

The Bush Administration's position on funding embryonic stem cell research has been quite clear for some time. With the exception of a very limited number of "lines" of stem cells that were already available when they announced their position, they will not fund any research on embryonic stem cells that were produced using a process that harms the embryos. At the time they announced that policy, and until very recently, the production of an embryonic stem cell line resulted in the destruction of the embryo in question.

The Washington Post reports today that Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Massachusetts has developed and demonstrated a process for producing embryonic stem cell lines that does not harm the embryos. Basically, they take one cell from the embryo, using a process very similar to one that's commonly used in fertility clinics to for genetic disorders before implanting the embryos in the mother. In this procedure, which is known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a single cell is removed from an eight-cell zygote, and coaxed into producing a stem cell line. The remainder of the zygote is left unharmed. PGD was first developed in 1989, and is a well-established procedure offered by numerous providers today.

Advanced Cell Technology scientists report, in an article published yesterday in the journal Stem Cell (pdf) that they were able to use a process similar to that used in PGD to remove cells from embryos. They were able to produce stem cell lines from the cells that they removed, and they were able to demonstrate that the zygotes went on to develop into healthy blastocysts at "a rate consistent with or higher than previously reported for both biopsied and nonbiopsied embryos".

Sounds great, right? Embryonic stem cell lines are produced, no embryos are harmed in the production of the stem cell lines, everyone's happy, and we can get down to the real work of looking for cures for diseases, right? Wrong. From the WaPo article:

That means the work should be eligible for federal financing under President Bush's six-year-old policy of funding only stem cell research that does not harm embryos, said study leader Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester.

But that is not likely, said Story Landis, who heads the National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Task Force, which oversees grants for studies on the medically promising cells.

The embryos Lanza used, which were donated for research, appear not to have been damaged, Landis acknowledged. However, she said, "it is impossible to know definitively" that the embryos were not in some subtle way harmed by the experiment. And "no harm" is the basis of the Bush policy, she said.

Landis said the only way to prove that the technique does not harm embryos would be to transfer many of them to women's wombs and see whether the resulting babies were normal. But it would be unethical to do that experiment, she said, so the question cannot be answered.

So. They can't get funding for the embryos unless they carry out a test that would definitively prove that the embryos were not harmed, and they cannot ethically conduct the test that would show that the embryos were not harmed because they have not yet shown that the embryos were not harmed.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed. "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

12 responses so far

  • Martin R says:

    But are those embryos made for the purpose of harvesting cells? Or are they intercepted on their way to the hospital incinerator? In the second case, the whole "don't hurt the embryos" issue becomes moot.

  • Jim Lemire says:

    But I thought these embryos such as these were implanted to develop into healthy fetuses (feti?) - isn't that the point of PGD?

  • Vanderleun says:

    Ah yes, another example of how Stem Cell research has just ground to an utter halt in the last six years. No advancements. No discoveries. Stem Cell research just mired in 2002. Sad really that nothing's been done. In the absence of any new research, science writers on all continents have been forced to just make up stories about various breakthroughs and advances.

  • SabrinaW says:

    When you disallow actions that would prove or disprove a hypothesis through the scientific method, there is a problem. I am getting so tired of policy that has anti-scientific ideologies founding it.
    On a different note, I love the return of the Precautionary Principle applied narrowly to this issue; think we could use it on other areas of public health as well, such as emissions standards and GMOs in foods? Oh, wait, that's not economically profitable.

  • Coin says:

    And the hilarious/disgusting thing is, my arguments with administration apologists about this issue still revolve around the question of whether or not stem cell research is, technically, "banned".

  • Mike Dunford says:

    Martin:
    The embryos that they used were fertility clinic leftovers that had been donated for use in research.
    Jim:
    One would think that the routine use of a very similar process over a 15+ year period would be sufficient proof that the embryos are not harmed. And, in a world driven by common sense and logic, one would be right.

  • Tralfaz says:

    If the procedure is pretty much the same as the PGD procedure, then it should be reasonable to apply data on the safety of PGD to the new procedure. If this is not allowable then there is either some key difference in the procedures or the block is entirely politically based.

  • Jim Beil says:

    On the issue of stem cells, I can't believe that no one on the right has ever called for a hault in fertility efforts in which many embryos are used in an effort to help couples have children but many are also never implanted in a uterus and are simply destroyed. If the conservatives are so concerned about saving embryos, why don't they ever complain about that? Maybe they don't really care about the embryos, or maybe they just use the issue as a political tool. In any case, there is no excuse for Bush vetoing a bill that would have allowed those very stem cells that would normally be destroyed in fertility clinics to be used for research. Check out this blog discussion on the issue. http://billcall.blogspot.com/2007/12/hr3-stem-cell-research-enhancement-act.html

  • sparrow says:

    The real underlying problem here is not the tactics of placing illogical roadblocks in the way of embryonic stem cell research. The primary problem is having Bush in the White House in the first place. Fortunately, that will come to an end soon enough.

  • Calamity Jean says:

    Sparrow said: "The primary problem is having Bush in the White House in the first place. Fortunately, that will come to an end soon enough."
    Sorry, you're wrong. TOMORROW wouldn't be "soon enough" for Bush & company to leave!

  • Andrew says:

    Don't worry. The tests will be done elsewhere if there is cooperation. Those other countries will benefit from the expertise gained and will be able to sell any resultant treatments back to you Americans. Win all round.
    Sad but true. That is where these policies are leading.

  • cheryl holmes says:

    How sad...this administration has more concern for stem cells than human life.