Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dr. Strangecell

I happened to come across a newly published paper today that reminded me of a topic I've been meaning to think/write about for awhile, and that is iPS cells (for an inflammatory title: "why iPS cells show how misguided religious institutions are, and the people who dogmatically follow them").

First, some terminology. We've all heard of stem cells, and in the parlance of our times, stem cells refer to embryonic stem cells, abbreviated ES cells. These are cells that arise very early in development: sperm + egg = 1 cell, and ES cells are a few days' worth of cell divisions after that. As you may have noticed, the cells in your body are quite different from one another; the cells that make up your brain, your tongue, your pancreas, etc. are all doing very different things, but they are doing it from the exact same set of blueprints, the DNA you inherited from your mom and pop/milkman. Your cells accomplish this diversity by turning genes on and off at various times, and thus differentiating into various cells types. ES cells, because they are such an early population of cells (that happen to grow readily in a lab on plastic), are a wonderful resource for figuring out how these decisions about diversity get made and hold tremendous promise for combating a myriad of human diseases. From a very basic standpoint, most things that are wrong with you medically arise because something is broken, and ES cells allow you to re-make that part.

You may recall that a few years back, The Decider decided that creating new human ES cells was wrong. Well, not wrong if you are having sex to make babies, which of course makes ES cells, but wrong if you are doing it in a lab ('it' being making ES cells, not having sex to make babies... although presumably W would be against that, too). Bush argued that we already have some ES lines, so let's just use those. The argument against making new ES lines is that, um, well, god puts a soul in a fertilized egg, and because he's done that, we can't use these lines for research. I'm sure Bush said it better (or not), but let's be clear: the only possible reason one could oppose the creation of new ES cell lines is on the grounds of god & religion.

This point needs a paragraph of its own. I smash a rock and this does no harm because it is not alive. I eat a tomato and that is fine, because it is a plant and doesn't have a nervous system and thus feelings. I kick a puppy and that is bad, because clearly the puppy does have feelings. I eat a pig and that is... eh, okay, foggy area, something that clearly intelligent people disagree on... I eat a pig that has been confined to a cage its whole life, maybe not okay, a pig that has roamed around its whole life, maybe more okay. ES cells are not a pig or a puppy. These cells do not feel a thing, because they can't, they are simply a little ball of cells with no nervous system, no brain, no nothing. So if you want to oppose the use of ES cells in medical research, you must oppose it on the basis that god has a plan for those cells, that god has tucked a soul into those cells (just under the Golgi apparatus, I'm told).

Back to my original topic. A major point I mentioned earlier: the DNA to make any cell type is in every cell type. Quite recently, researchers have figured out how to take cells from an adult and, by introducing specific genes, turn back the clock. These cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) and as far as anyone can tell, behave just like ES cells (pluripotent means that, just like ES cells, these cells can differentiate into every other cell type). To make this transformation occur, at first researchers needed to introduce various genes; in this recent paper, they substituted chemicals for some genes, so at some point in the near future, it is reasonable (or, at least, not unreasonable) to expect that you could swab your cheek for some cells, sprinkle some molecules on it, and voila, you've got some cells that could be used to make a new liver.

So, isn't this a problem? If anything that has the capacity to be a human has a soul, wouldn't these iPS cells qualify?
By definition, true pluripotent cells could be used to make a human. Are we splitting a soul if I were to make another human out of my skin cells? Or does that mean we could be making soul-less people -- I get the soul, my clone gets screwed? If I were inclined to such religious belief, I'd be pissed off beyond belief that scientists are making iPS cells in the lab, for the exact same reason I didn't want otherwise-garbage frozen embryos from fertility clincs used in the lab. Yet I haven't heard a peep from the Religious Right about this. Perhaps they see a distinction I don't. Or perhaps they are just dogmatic morons who haven't asked an original question their entire lives and seek comfort in slavishly following ridiculous doctrines. Either way....