When new science ignites a firestorm
David Ewing Duncan
Monday, February 23, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle
Doug Melton sighs. For hours, this Harvard molecular embryologist has been
toiling in a small personal lab attached to his office in Cambridge,
Mass., where he's trying to save the lives of his two children.
Twelve-year-old Sam and 16-year-old Emma have been diagnosed with insulin-
dependent diabetes. If Melton's research is successful, they could be
spared the organ failure, blindness and heart disease that eventually
afflict diabetics -- but only if Melton is allowed to continue his work by
lawmakers in Washington, D.C. They worry that his methods might be immoral
or dangerous and are threatening to shut down his work.
Melton, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor in the Natural Sciences at
Harvard University, studies the mechanisms of how embryonic stem cells
form in mice and humans just after an egg is fertilized. These stem cells
have the unique ability to grow into any tissue in the body -- whether of
a liver, eyeball or skeleton.
These days, Melton is honing in on embryonic stem cells that form the
pancreas, the organ in mammals that secretes insulin, using specialized
cells called islets. Insulin helps transport sugars from the blood into
cells for use as fuel.
Without insulin, the sugars gum up in the blood vessels like sugar in a
gas tank, causing an untreated diabetic to go into shock and die.
In Sam and Emma and one million other insulin-dependent diabetics in the
United States, the insulin-producing islets are destroyed by their body's
immune system, unless they take frequent doses of needle-injected insulin.
This keeps them alive and functioning, but does not stop the slow
degradation of their organs.
Other embryonic stem-cell researchers delve into how these microscopic
blobs might be tweaked so that they could be used to grow into healthy
aortas for those with heart disease, and into new spinal cords for
patients such as the actor Christopher Reeve, whose backbone was shattered
in an accident, leaving him paralyzed.
Such treatments are years away -- and may not work. But scientists hope
that one day stem cells that have been encouraged in the lab to grow into
heart or spinal column cells could be inserted into a patient so that they
could replicate and replace damaged body parts.
Researchers are also experimenting with adult stem cells, generated by
specific organs such as the skin, nudging them to grow into specialized
replacement cells. However, these cells have been shown to be far less
potent than embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to
differentiate into any part of the body.
Since the first human embryonic stem cells were isolated in 1994 by Ariff
Bongso, a research professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the National
University of Singapore, this new science has ignited two firestorms.
One is a creative fire, a breathtaking moment for Melton and other
scientists, for whom a new world has been opened up for exploration that
they believe will save countless Sams and Emmas.
The other is political and ethical, a scorching debate that pits
scientific optimists against skeptics who believe that this fledgling
science may open up a Pandora's box that could have unforeseen and
catastrophic consequences. For those who believe that life begins at
conception, an experiment using embryonic stem cells -- which almost
always results in the destruction of an embryo -- is nothing less than
Others feel uneasy about the notion of creating a human embryo solely with
the intention of harvesting its cells to benefit a full-grown human.
Further apprehension surrounds research to create and study embryonic stem
cells using cloning. This is when the DNA from, say, a patient with a
shattered spine is implanted into a donor's fertilized egg that has been
emptied of its original DNA.
If all goes well, this cloned egg replicates to create embryonic stem
cells capable of growing healthy spinal cells that could one day be
implanted in Christopher Reeve's spine.
Scientists believe that cloned cells will work best to reconstruct spinal
cords and liver cells because they are an identical genetic match.
Otherwise, Reeve's body might reject the replacement cells, just as the
bodies of transplant patients often reject new hearts and kidneys.
Cloning probably won't directly help Sam and Emma Melton to grow healthy,
insulin-producing islet cells, since their DNA will merely produce the
original cells over again, which will also be destroyed by their immune
But Melton says that some day cloning Sam and Emma's islet cells could be
crucial for his research into understanding how to come up with a cure.
Earlier this month, a South Korean research team led by Hwang Woo Suk of
Seoul National University cloned 30 embryos of about 100 cells each -- by
far the largest embryos grown to date. They then successfully extracted
embryonic stem cells from them.
Stem cell advocates were ecstatic. But critics pointed out that the
Koreans could have planted these cloned embryos into a womb and attempted
to grow a genetically identical human.
This prospect adds to worries that a nascent Franken-science could lead to
a future of cloned superhumans, or humanlike drones grown like hens on a
feed lot to provide spare body parts for "complete" humans.
Advocates of stem-cell research insist that the objective in therapeutic
cloning is solely to extract stem cells to cure disease and injury.
So which is it -- an awesome unleashing of creative scientific energy that
society should encourage and adequately fund, or a potential nightmare?
The question is as an ancient one, as old as fire and Prometheus.
In the ancient Greek myth, the god Prometheus brought fire to human beings
in defiance of a ban by Zeus. A deity with a thunderous temper, Zeus
punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock where, each day, an eagle
would feast on his liver. At night, the liver grew back, and the
fire-giver was tormented again in the morning.
The tale underscores the dual nature of scientific discovery -- that fire
is a potent tool for improving life but can also be a force of
I imagine Cro-Magnon scientists pointing to fire and realizing the
possibilities: Charbroiled mammoth steak! Torchlight to paint bison on
Cro-Magnon skeptics undoubtedly agreed that mammoth kabobs were better
barbecued than raw, but what if the flames leapt up in a gust of wind and
razed the village, burning people alive?
For eons, the pro-fire and anti-fire forces have seesawed back and forth
as the dominant viewpoint new technologies and discoveries appeared.
Think of Galileo, who delighted his contemporaries with brilliant
discoveries about the laws of motion and physics 400 years ago in Florence
-- until he insisted that Copernicus was right, and that the Earth is not
at the center of the universe, a heretical violation of Catholic doctrine
at the time. Or of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution still rankles
those who believe God created the universe.
Fire itself is still feared in certain forms, and we have strict laws
about those who abuse it. Yet humans long ago decided the basics about
what's useful and dangerous about fire. We have imposed sensible
regulations on its use, striking a balance.
Former President George H.W. Bush summed up the need for scientific
balance at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in 1990.
"Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry; and
one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity."
Now, under his son, President George W. Bush, and the Republican-led
Congress, the pendulum in the debate has taken a different swing.
Last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill calling for a
complete ban on all forms of human cloning. The bill lumped together
embryonic cloning to create stem cells with reproductive cloning, which
most people agree should be banned.
Under the proposed legislation, Doug Melton and his colleagues would face
up to 10 years in prison and fines of at least $1 million for cloning
embryonic stem cells.
The Senate's version of the bill is pending, but remains a handful of
votes shy of passage.
Just three months ago, the Legal Committee of the U.N. General Assembly
narrowly voted to postpone consideration of a ban of all cloning for two
years. Had the initiative reached the floor of the full assembly, the
U.S.-led coalition favoring the ban looked likely to win.
The Bush administration claimed to have the support of 100 out of 191
members. Such a ban would have been non-binding, but it would have sent a
This comes after President Bush's announcement in August 2001 that federal
funds for stem-cell research would be restricted to 64 frozen embryonic
stem cell lines already culled from existing embryos.
He banned the development of any further lines with federal funds,
although private funding was not affected. Bush's position sounded like a
compromise, in line with the comments of his father, but it quickly became
evident that the 64 lines did not really exist.
The actual number is roughly 11 lines widely available to researchers, a
stem-gap that is holding back research paid for with federal funds.
Particularly exasperatingto Melton are the clinics using in vitro
fertilization, in order to help infertile couples have children. This
process produces thousands of embryos a year that are unusable and are
discarded -- or killed, if you believe life starts at conception -- and
that is perfectly legal under U.S. law.
"It's frustrating that we can't use these embryos," says Melton, who tells
me that this is why the Koreans beat him and other Americans. "I don't
want to be reading about discoveries in other countries that should have
happened here," he says.
Melton tells me that his lab has developed 17 stem cell lines using
private funds. But researchers using federal funds cannot touch them, he
says, which includes most researchers in the United States.
Nor is this the first time that Washington's current leadership has
politicized science. Last summer, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, asked
the House Committee on Government Reform's Minority Staff to compile a
report detailing violations of scientific objectivity.
The Waxman report cites the case of the missing stem-cell lines, along
with evidence that the White House suppressed reports by the Environmental
Protection Agency on the risks of global warming; altered the Web site of
the National Cancer Institute to claim -- against scientific evidence --
that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer, and appointed
numerous unqualified people to scientific advisory committees.
A 38-page report issued last week by the independent Union of Concerned
Scientists and signed by 60 prominent scientists (including 20 Nobel
laureates), makes similar charges.
John Marburger III, science adviser to President Bush, insists that the
administration is a strong supporter of scientific research and that the
charges raised in the report of the scientists' group were isolated
incidents. "I don't think they add up to a pattern of disrespect," he was
quoted as saying in the New York Times.
Yet damage is being done, and laws are close to passing that might land
Doug Melton in jail. Perhaps his only consolation is that history has
tended to be against those who would proscribe promising scientific
If researchers are successful in restoring shattered spines and in
repairing the islet cells in Sam and Emma Melton, Congress might as well
try to ban fire, or insist that the Earth is not at the center of the
universe. The potential market for such cures may become an enormous
Pro-fire forces are already launching a counter-attack. Britain's
Parliament has passed regulations allowing government-funded embryonic
stem- cell research, with safeguards.
Last September, then-governor Gray Davis signed a state law that bans
reproductive cloning but legalizes cloning for stem cell research, and
allows state funding. New Jersey just passed a similar law. This winter,
former presidential candidate (and physician) Howard Dean railed against
President Bush for politicizing science, a stance likely to be taken up
again by the winner of the Democratic nomination.
This is not to say that ethical qualms about stem cells are unfounded.
Once the facts are in, our society we may want to ban embryonic stem-cell
cloning, though more likely government will regulate stem cells, like fire
and nuclear power.
This is our Faustian bargain with modern science and technology -- to use
it where it is beneficial, and restrict or ban it where it is not, hoping
that we have guarded against something going horribly wrong.
Scientists also dismiss the fears and ideologies of nonscientists at their
peril, as Galileo discovered when people reacted in revulsion and fear to
a cosmic theory that upended the core beliefs of 17th century Europeans.
He chose to arrogantly dismiss them, assuming that his fame and genius
made him immune from public opinion and would protect him from punishment.
Unlike Prometheus, Galileo kept his liver, but after the Inquisition
threatened him with torture, he publicly reversed himself about the
position of the Earth.
Banished and broken in the last years of his life, he lived under house
arrest, his output of discoveries silenced.
Doug Melton's internal organs are also safe from predatory talons. But
should Congress impose a ban, rather than go to prison or give up his
work, he says he will travel to another country where embryonic stem-cell
research is legal.
"If this is the only way forward," he says, "I would leave."
Sitting in Melton's office on a wintry day in Cambridge, Mass., I look at
the faces of his children in the photos on his desk. Sam is lanky, with
short hair and a slightly awkward smile; Emma has long, dark hair and
Now a high school junior, she wrote in a recent essay that she wants to
become an embryologist like her father. "I am also interested in becoming
a member of Congress and petitioning for a cure that way," she wrote.
"I just hope she gets the chance," says Melton. "In this, I am no
different than any parent," he says, heading back into his lab.