Thank the gods. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court had the good sense to ignore a case that would have prevented the government from funding embryonic stem cell research. Here's why their decision was a very good idea.
Illustration by Andrea Danti via Shutterstock
First, some background. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, backed by the most impressive team of science advisors in presidential history, he quickly issued an executive order increasing federal funding for research involving human embryonic stem cells (hESC). The reasoning was simple: hESC, scientists believe, could one day be used to treat diseases and injuries in truly revolutionary ways.
But the president's move attracted a firestorm of criticism. Even though federal law restricts funding to research on stem-cell lines derived from embryos from fertility clinics that would otherwise have be thrown away, opponents to the order believe that such research is unethical, because it "destroys" human embryos.
The discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in 2006 (for which Shinya Yamanaka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine last year), had also helped hESC's detractors feel vindicated. An iPS cell is a fully developed cell that has been coaxed into a more primitive, embryonic-like state. Like embryonic stem cells, iPS cells can be reprogrammed to develop into a variety of different cell types. Scientists, the president's opposition argued, had discovered a handy cellular loophole that would allow them to do hESC research without the ethically icky hESCs. In 2009, opponents challenged federal funding of hESC research, led by two researchers who said the U.S. National Institutes of Health rules on such studies violate federal law. Yesterday, this challenge came before the Supreme Court. And Yesterday, the Supreme Court — sensibly — refused to review the challenge.
This was a great call for several reasons, but let's just focus on one for now. Let's forget, for the time being, that the two scientists who initially sued in 2009 to block hESC research sued not on ethical grounds, but because they were at risk of losing their share of federal grant money. Let's also ignore the fact that the ethical angle — that hESC research "encourages the destruction of fertilized embryos and therefore destroys life" — stems from misinformation and a lack of understanding.
Here's the real reason that hESC research should proceed unencumbered, even in light of the advent of iPSCs. The fact of the matter is that the vast potential of stem cell research (and this is stem cell research of any kind) HAS YET TO BE REALIZED. Remember that to a scientist working with iPSCs, hESCs are an entirely different kettle of stem cell. The notion that iPSCs eliminate the need for hESCs research is flat-out wrong.
This point is really driven home by Doug Melton (co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute) and Robert Lanza (chief science officer for Advanced Cell Technology, a company currently demonstrating the therapeutic potential of hESCs in disorders like Stargardt Disease) in an interview with Forbes' John Farrell. Like Melton and many of his colleagues in stem cell research, Lanza says the idea that iPS cells obviate the need for hESC research "ignores the basic science, and both kinds of research will be crucial to the success of the entire field." Why? Because iPS cells aren't "ready for prime time." Farrell explains:
Most researchers agree that one day they will supplant embryonic stem cells in the lab. But currently there remain too many unresolved problems with their generation, and embryonic stem cells are considered a necessary tool in the continued research on how to perfect iPS cells for potential therapeutic use.
To quote University of Illinois, Chicago researcher Jalees Reeman, the embryonic stem cell remains the "gold standard" of pluripotent (i.e. functionally malleable) cell. Removing something so empiracally valuable from the sphere of government funded scientific inquiry is more than imprudent — it's willfull ignorance of the highest order.