Sunday, March 8, 2009

Theologians should stop talking about science

The Obama administration is about to announce an end to the Bush policy banning the use of federal funds to create new ES cell lines. The science community is quite happy about this, but a negative is that we now need to hear, again, the bizarre complaints of those who think this presents an ethical dilemma, except now there is an additional 4 - 8 years of science that these folks can misrepresent, either deliberately or because they don't really get it (I think the latter is more likely).

For example, via Newsweek & the Washington Post & Georgetown, theologian Thomas Reese argues that we should limit and then end the use of embryonic stem cells in research. Reese mentions the use of iPS cells, which I've written about before, here, here, and here. He writes:

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research also point to significant breakthroughs in adult stem cell research, such as the recent development of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) that do not require the use of human embryos but can be made from skin tissue. Not only does such a process lack the ethical problems of using embryonic stem cells, it also has the medical advantage of producing cells that are less likely to be rejected since they come from the same body to which they will be returning.

In the past, the process of developing iPS cells was questioned because of the use of viruses in the process. These viruses might cause the transplanted cells to become cancerous after the transplant. This problem may have been eliminated by recently announced procedures that do not require viruses to transform adult cells into these iPS cells.

First, let's be clear on the science. The use of the phrase "in the past" is a bit disingenuous to describe questions about using virus to make iPS cells -- there have been a handful of papers that have minimized the use of virus -- although to my recollection, none were able to do it without using any virus -- and second, these papers have been in print for barely a few months, not nearly enough time to confirm the results. Also, let's understand what these papers did and did not demonstrate. One can make iPS cells, but it is a terribly inefficient process -- fewer than 0.1% of cells emerge from the selection with stem cell like properties. To me, this argues that you haven't really made cells that are truly ES cells, but rather just close enough, so in simple assays they behave like ES cells, with an emphasis on simple.

Second, iPS cells do not eliminate the ethical dilemma. The objection to using ES cells is that they have the potential to be humans, and thus are a human life. If iPS cells don't have the same properties as ES cells, then we'd agree that they are not as medically useful. But if they do have the same properties as ES cells, then they have the potential to be humans and shouldn't be used! (e.g. if A = B, and B = C, then A = C)

Reese first proposes that we only use ES cells that are going to be destroyed (or frozen indefinitely) anyway, in other words, let's not make any new ES cells solely for the purpose of research. Fine. But then his second proposal is jaw-dropping:

2. Before using human embryonic stem cells, researchers should show that the research they are doing cannot be done with non-embryonic stem cells.

Really? Researchers should prove that something cannot be done? First, there's the obvious logical objection that proving something can't be done is actually impossible. But leaving that aside (I dunno, accepting that 95% failure is good enough, however one might define that), we really want to waste a substantial amount of time and effort in an attempt to show that something isn't working? This is exactly the sort of idiotic proposal that would come from someone who clearly does not understand either the science that he is writing about or the process of doing science.

I really don't know why the reaction of the media, when some ethical issue arises in scientific research, is to find some theologian and take his (and it is almost always a he) opinion as the other side in the debate. Theologians study god, which is not exactly an experimentally tractable system -- I can't think of any profession that would leave you less prepared to form a cogent opinion on modern bioligical research.