Missing the forest for the trees

In the continuing fracas following the news that embryonic stem cell lines can be made from single cells, I am getting very concerned about how Catholics and other opponents of such research are criticizing it.

Take, for example, Diogenes of Catholic World News. He writes:

In the article published in Nature magazine, ACT explained that stem cells could be harvested from human embryos without destroying the embryos themselves. But in the press release that generated so much hype, they didn’t bother mentioning that in fact, in their research,all the embryos were destroyed!. Oh, yes, and that photo of a developing embryo that accompanied the press release? That wasn’t an embryo used in this research.

In other words, the story that generated so much media attention this week, about the “breakthrough” in stem-cell research, was driven not by science but by public-relations hype.

No! It merely reinforces the opinion held by many scientists that religious folk (1) don’t understand their research and (2) are merely interested in influencing politics and public opinion to drive us back into the Dark Ages. Diogenes is correct that all the embryos were destroyed and that they used a stock embryo photo, and yes, that is not exactly wonderful, but it does not diminish what ACT has done. They produced embryonic stem cells from single human embryo cells. They extracted more than one cell from the embryos, therefore destroying them, but it was just proof of principle. Nothing more. Their methods are extensible to taking single cells from single embryos to try to make the same lines. In their minds, that makes the research groundbreaking, which it is. To those who do not find in vitro fertilization unethical, that means that there is a new way to ethically produce stem cells. If we’re going to attack the morality of what ACT has done, the angle to take is examining IVT itself, not that their research destroyed embryos.

UPDATE: I may have given ACT too much credit. I carefully read their paper again, andtThey cultured the “blastomeres” (single embryonic stem cells) together in the same medium, so there could be factors from one cell influencing the others. So, although I still think the best way to attack this is from the IVF front, they still have a long way to go before making the extraction of one blastomere a viable way to produce ES cells.


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