BIOETHICS: by Dr David van GendNews Weekly
Tell the truth about adult stem cells
, July 13, 2002
That we can harness the magnificent healing power of stem cells without ever destroying human embryos has so far been successfully buried under a heap of embryonic hype.
Our representatives need to get over their fixation with embryonic stem cells, which remain both useless and dangerous, and focus on the dramatic but safe achievements of stem cells from our own adult tissue.
We recently delivered to the Prime Minister's office a fifty page reference to therapies using adult stem cells, and invited him to fax us even half a page of embryonic applications. Of course his sheet will be completely blank.
Contrary to public illusion, stem cells from embryos have not achieved one single human therapy, and for serious technical reasons may never do so, while adult stem cells are rapidly being applied to a range of previously incurable afflictions.Success
Consider some recent achievements.
In April, the American Society of Neurological Surgeons reported a Parkinson's patient symptom-free three years after injection with his own adult stem cells. By contrast, a disastrous trial of embryonic stem cells, with their unstable malignant potential, produced a tumour of teeth and hair in a Parkinson's patient's brain.
For heart disease, where embryonic stem cells offer nothing, Newcastle University treated its first patient in April with adult muscle stem cells to repair advanced heart failure, after positive results in European trials last year.
For juvenile diabetes, last year the American Diabetes Association announced nine out of 15 sufferers free of insulin after treatment with adult pancreatic duct cells.
For spinal paralysis, a woman in Canada with the same injury as Christopher Reeve is reported to have regained bladder control and toe movement using her own stem cells.
And little Rhys Jones, cured of "bubble boy" immune disease this year using his own stem cells, and the Singaporean boy cured of thalassemia last year using stem cells from unrelated placental blood, and the nine blind Taiwanese men cured last year with corneal stem cell grafts, and the "phenomenal" response in a Chicago trial for Crohn's disease last August (reported at stemcellresearch.org).
These are real cures, not just the speculative hype of the embryo researchers. What then is the motivation behind the promotion of embryonic stem cells, given that all the medical advances are being made with adult stem cells?
Firstly, the four or five people who always speak to the media are leading embryo researchers, and they will naturally promote their field of expertise. If embryo research is sidelined, they are sidelined, and they are understandably defending their interests.
More important is to follow the money trail. The Bill does not limit research on embryos to the developing of stem cell therapies. Ongoing market demand for embryos is most likely to be in the lucrative field of drug development. Drug companies can use embryos and stem cells in novel ways - as simulated pregnancies, as pure tissue preparations for testing new chemicals or cosmetics, as rich resources to be plundered for research and development.
If we abandon these embryos to the researchers, a fair bet is they are not being sacrificed to cure diabetes or Parkinson's - adult stem cells are looking after that side of things nicely - but to enhance the R&D capacity of multinational drug and cosmetics companies.
The other great scientific motivation for getting hold of embryos is the intoxicating prospect of reshaping the species through human cloning and genetic enhancement. Learning to manipulate IVF embryos is the essential first step towards successful cloning and the whole eugenic project.
We are left then with embryo scientists who seem to be misrepresenting the science quite blatantly. We are left with the reasonable suspicion that more mundane drug company interests lie behind this drive to get hold of human embryos, and that we are being duped.
We are also being duped if we think that only the present frozen generation of embryos is being abandoned. The Bill lapses after three years, at which time another generation is available to the researchers.
And Mr Howard is duping himself if he believes his own rhetoric - that only "surplus" embryos will ever be used, and that no embryo will ever be specially created for research.
One of Australia's senior IVF researchers, Dr Robert Jansen, has told all who care to listen that such a distinction is a "fallacy", and that the embryo supply will be controlled simply by market demand.
As head of Sydney IVF for the last 20 years, Dr Jansen gave evidence to the Senate enquiry in 1986, published as "Human Embryo Experimentation in Australia", in which he states (p.32):
"It is a fallacy to distinguish between surplus embryos and specially created embryos in terms of embryo research. Any intelligent administrator of an IVF program can, by minor changes in his ordinary clinical way of going about things, change the number of embryos that are fertilised."
That Senate report rejected any destructive research on human embryos, and advised "that the concept of guardianship be adopted as the most appropriate model to indicate the respect due to the embryo".
As guardians, we should never sacrifice an embryonic human life to science. The basic offence is that it has been created as "surplus" in the first place, but it is the lesser of the evils to accept the full shame of what we have allowed, let it die, and prevent it happening to other embryos.
A more complex corruption is to reheat the embryo as mere expired meat for the consumption of science, acquiescing to the principle that an embryonic human can be destroyed as the means to someone else's end, and establishing a new and permanent market for generations of embryos to come.Embryo cannibalism
There are many Australians who agree with the 1986 Senate's humane conclusion, and who will not accept a culture of embryo cannibalism being forced upon our children.
Under this Bill's proposals, all our offspring will become consumers, whether they like it or not, of these embryos - of the drugs developed from them, of the medical knowledge derived from their destruction.
It is the only literal case of one group in society forcing its science and philosophy "down the throat" of others. And we will not stomach that for our children.
There is only one satisfactory compromise. Let us obtain all the benefits we can by using the superior, and innocent, sources of stem cells. There is no justification to lay the foundations of a dehumanising industry - today embryo culling, tomorrow cloning - around our tragically "surplus" embryos.
- Dr David van Gend is a spokesman for "Do No Harm", a coalition of Australians who support ethical medical research