Stem Cells ‘Sited’
There is a new web site up giving some basic information about stem cell research. The information is basic, but for those who have no science background, it is probably a good start.
Even though the site claims to be absolutely neutral on the issue of stem cell research, it does make one major assumption, that stem cell research, either on embryonic or adult stem cells- will eventually lead somewhere. Also note the language involved in the site is also inherently pro-science. For example the site prefers to use the more talking-point acceptable adjectives unlimited and limited as opposed to embryonic and adult. Is that bad? No. Is it neutral. No again.
Do I think stem cell research is inherently unethical? No. The unethical part of the discussion is the disingenuous arguments coming from the anti-choice, religious right trying to claim that unused embryos created during in-vitro fertilization are the moral equivalent of a 5 year old child. These people leave a slime trail.
On the other hand, I have long since lost the ability to believe that scientific progress is either good or inevitable.
For example look at today’s article in the New York Times about one of the main pharmaceutical companies cancelling trials of a new heart medicine.
The news came to Pfizer’s chief scientist, Dr. John L. LaMattina, as he was showering at 7 a.m. Saturday: the company’s most promising experimental drug, intended to treat heart disease, actually caused an increase in deaths and heart problems. Eighty-two people had died so far in a clinical trial, versus 51 people in the same trial who had not taken it.
Scrutiny of Other Heart Drugs Could Grow After Failed Trial (December 4, 2006) Within hours, Pfizer, the world’s largest drug maker, told more than 100 trial investigators to stop giving patients the drug, called torcetrapib. Shortly after 9 p.m. Saturday, Pfizer announced that it had pulled the plug on the medicine entirely, turning the company’s nearly $1 billion investment in it into a total loss.
The abrupt decision to discontinue torcetrapib was a shocking disappointment for Pfizer and for people who suffer from heart disease. The drug, which has been in development since the early 1990s, raises so-called good cholesterol, and cardiologists had hoped it would reduce the buildup of plaques in blood vessels that can cause heart attacks. Just last Thursday, Pfizer’s chief executive, Jeffrey B. Kindler, said publicly that the drug could be among the most important new developments for heart disease in decades and that the company hoped to get Food and Drug Administration approval for it in 2007.
We’ll leave the fact that the headline – “End of Drug Trial Is a Big Loss for Pfizer and Heart Patients” – alone is an abomination and inherently assumes heart patients would have benefited more from medication than from improved diets and permanent mobility training. The fact that Pfizer is forced to stop trying to produce a drug which demonstrably didn’t work is just that – a fact. It is a big loss for Pfizer, the investors will be sorely missing the 1 billion dollar investment. But that is the kind of thing that is at stake here. Not making people healthier.
But what was Pfizer trying to produce? A drug that is supposed to turn bad cholesterol into good cholesterol. According to the Weight-control Information Network, half of America is overweight and a third are obese. Do I really believe those exact numbers? No, not really. Oh the values are correct, but I don’t think that all overweight people need to fit some fantasy number designed to make statistical analysis easier. On the other hand the trend is obvious. Pfizer knows that one way to make money is to allow people to eat what they want and be able to reduce heart problems. The NIH is trying to get people to stop eating what they want. Pfizer ran up against a scientific wall after investing about a billion dollars in a lifestyle drug. Lot’s of very intelligent, caring people hoped the drug would work, that it would be effective. They found the path led nowhere. Perhaps because the hypotheses – good and bad cholesterol instead of good eating habits and exercise -is a path leading to failure.
Do I think stem cell research is a canard? Is it something that is cynically being pushed as a possible wonder cure, a new lifestyle drug? No. But the possible advantages and the possible side effects are so unknown, so impossible to estimate that the noise being generated to do further research, to be the first to get the money making patent, honestly makes me ill.
Researchers can’t predict if a certain line of research will pan out. Basic scientific research is just that – basic. There are failures and successes. Some hypothesis will pan out – others will fail. But to turn the issue into talking points. To speak of limited and unlimited cells is also disingenuous. Unfortunately to be able to do the basic science, to convince an increasingly fundamentalist American public, the misdirection is probably necessary. But don’t forget that it is ultimately big money that wants the research to be done.
The need to get ‘first patent’ and not ‘first patient’ is at the
heart stem of the issue.
(Hat Tip: Toby Barlow/Huffington Post for the stem cell website.)