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Pressing Issues of the Day

Pressing Issues of the Day


We have seen scientists in the past, like famous evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, who declared that “science” and “ethics” including religion, were separate issues, each with their own spheres of influence. The implication was that everyone should be free to support the philosophy of one’s choice. Well that was then, and this is now. Today, with ethical issues as with everything else, it seems there is only one respectable position, that of the secular scientist. To support any other views is to fight “all of science.”

One current issue is the use of embryonic stem cells in research. On July 24, the council of the European Union narrowly agreed to fund research on new human embryonic stem cell lines. Certain countries, particularly Germany, had opposed this move. They did not want to sanction the sacrificing of new human lives which is what happens when a young embryo is torn apart to obtain the stem cells inside. In response to Germany’s position, a British scientist declared that “The whole of science is under attack.” (Nature July 27/06 p. 335).

One might wonder how opposition to a small aspect of medical research could constitute an attack on all of science. The attack, of course, was to oppose the interests or views of some secular scientists. The British official suggested that such opposition on Ger many’s part constituted an attempt to impose its own moral and cultural views over the entirety of European research. He had no problem with foisting his own views on an entire country however.

Similar controversies rage elsewhere too. On Wednesday July 19, 2006 American President George W. Bush exercised his right of veto for the first time in his presidency. His veto struck down legislation that would have expanded federal funds for research on embryonic stem cells. Ever since 2001, US federal support for research on embryonic stem cell lines has been limited to those cultures already available before August 9 of that year. The president did not want to completely discourage research, but he did not want to condone or encourage further killing of human embryos either.

This uneasy compromise has continued to the present in the United States, but there is new urgency in calls from many researchers for access to embryonic stem cell lines. Apparently the cultures do not stay healthy indefinitely. Over time they are prone, so it has been discovered, to gain extra copies of human chromosome number seventeen and occasionally also chromosome twelve. This is bad news for those hoping to carry out continued research on these cultures. Apparently during cell division, the process does not always proceed smoothly so that some daughter cells receive too many copies of a chromosome and others receive too few. (For those of you in Biology 30, this process is called non-disjunction.) Neither type of cell would be expected to perform in normal fashion. Thus such a culture is useless.

A symptom of this situation occurred in June of this year when the US National Institute of Health halted research involving a human embryonic stem cell line from South Korea. Apparently Seoul’s MizMedi hospital had been selling legal (made before August 2001) stem cell cultures to American institutions. This legal stem cell culture was called Miz-1. Since 2002 the NIH had paid this hospital $930,000 to grow, characterize and distribute Miz-1. However in December of 2003, the South Koreans discovered a chromosomal abnormality in that culture. They thus quietly substituted a more recent (and thus illegal in the US) culture called Miz-5. They nevertheless shipped it to the US labeled as Miz-1. Altogether about 16 research groups in the US received the mislabeled culture. Of course the new culture worked perfectly well in experiments, but these projects now did not qualify for federal funding.

It is a fact that cultures of human cells have long been used in research, but these are cancer cells, notorious for their ability to divide indefinitely. These cultures however do not develop into other types of cell. The special property of being able to divide indefinitely is thus found only in cancer cells and in stem cells, particularly those obtained from the early stages of embryonic development. No one knows why or how the human egg cell has the special ability to grow and differentiate (develop new types of cells) once that cell is fertilized. It is obviously an essential design feature of the egg cell, which enables new individuals to develop and be born. It is not only good ethics, but also good science, to respect this special property and special life. No one should be allowed to rip apart fertilized human eggs.

In short then, no one scientist or group of scientists speaks for the whole discipline of science. That goes for all aspects of scientific interpretation including origins and environmental issues. Think for yourself and always evaluate the issues.

October 2006

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