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August 15, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 33

Stem cell furor

The article "States And Stem Cells" forced me to sit down and reflect (C&EN, March 28, page 28). The article addresses the funding of embryonic stem cell research, and it takes for granted that every reader agrees with the necessity of such research. I and many others have different thoughts on this topic. Addressing the use of human embryos for research purposes is not the same as discussing grants for synthetic chemistry projects. There are further moral implications to this research that need to be considered in addition to the technical and financial concerns. We need to pause and reflect more upon the consequences of moving in this direction.

I do recognize the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research; however, I am concerned that manipulating human embryos to create ad hoc tissues degrades their value, turning them into building blocks to exploit on command. This holds true even if, under the best circumstances, this work is meant to improve the lives of some.

Furthermore, it is widely recognized that there are other ways to pursue the same humanitarian goals without raising such ethical problems. Use of adult stem cells and other techniques are promising. As an example, recent clinical trials conducted in the U.S. have shown that the clinical course of infantile neurodegenerative Krabbe's disease can be substantially altered by transplantation of umbilical-cord-derived stem cells (N. Engl. J. Med. 2005, 352, 2069). These results, and others, show that stem cells that are not of embryonic origin can be effectively used to alleviate the symptoms of disorders in multiple systems, expanding considerably the already established use of adult-derived stem cells in hematologic disease therapy (see a review in Lancet 2004, 364, 193).

Although no significant clinical results have yet been achieved with the use of embryonic stem cells, it seems that the media focus only on this type of research. Even if I were to grant that the use of adult stem cells may be technically more challenging than the manipulation of embryonic stem cells, we should not forget that using adult-derived stem cells does not require the destruction of human embryos, which are regarded by many as human life.

A scientist should always take into consideration all the factors that are implicated in his or her research. What is technically interesting or what seems in principle easier to obtain should not be the only criterion when embarking on a scientific project that could lead down an ethically troublesome path.

Luca Salvi


Your editorial on stem cell research was outstanding (C&EN, June 13, page 3). The research you cite from South Korea shows that science can provide ways to avoid ethical dilemmas when the ultimate aim is important enough. The advance of science cannot be halted by rigid beliefs, because the laws of nature are immutable and are available for all true seekers of knowledge to discover. If this new knowledge is not discovered in the U.S. or used for the benefit of its citizens, all Americans are that much poorer.

Steve Rosenblum
San Jose, Calif.


Your editorial was generally thoughtful and well-reasoned until the last paragraph. To state that "religious convictions ... should not be the basis of laws enacted by Congress" is at best naive. All legal systems in use today are ultimately derived from religion-based codes. This is a historic fact. Your argument that the Human Cloning Prohibition Act constitutes the establishment of a religion by the federal government is as bizarre a leap of "logic" as I have seen in a long time. Do you view other federal laws regulating human research activity as the establishment of a religion?

The problem that I have with the whole stem cell research/therapeutic cloning issue is that scientists have not discussed the moral and ethical problems unique to this research with the general public. In place of this discussion, the public is left with popular images of vast clone armies marching in rigid lockstep or humans grown solely for replacement parts. One might say, "But those are just science-fiction stories; they would never happen in real life." Really? Who is to stop it? Consider that for the past 20 years or so, human beings have deliberately been conceived and grown for the sole purpose of providing bone marrow transplants to older siblings. In this case, we are not arguing, "Can it happen?" Instead, we are speculating on how far it will go.

We must have that moral and ethical discussion today. We must have it in a public forum. We must treat all persons with different opinions on the issue with the same respect we would expect. As part of the discussion, we must not only talk about the potential benefits of such research, but we must also discuss the potential risks if the research is abused and the consequences if the research is successful. Do not doubt for a moment that there will be consequences from this research, especially if it is as successful as advocates hope.

If we do not have this discussion, then we will have forgotten something many in the general public fear is true. Frankenstein was the name of the scientist.

Terrence A. Lee
Murfreesboro, Tenn.


Thank you for your well-argued editorial on embryonic stem cell research. My family has a personal stake in the promise of therapeutic stem cell research: My daughter is deaf and losing her sight. Stem cell research holds the promise of someday restoring her hearing and vision. A small but vocal minority of extremists argue a moral aversion to embryonic stem cell research. These are the same people who would deny my daughter and the millions of people who suffer from Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and other disorders a chance to lead normal lives through fully funded and supported research. Although California and other states are offering a ray of hope by going it alone in sponsoring stem cell research, there is no question that the federal limitations placed on research are stifling the initiative and guidance that the National Institutes of Health could offer in this field.

A galling contradiction of the radical antiresearch lobby is the fact that the five-day-old blastocysts that they profess to protect are actually regularly discarded at fertility clinics. Yes, thrown away. Federal restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush guarantee that these blastocysts are flushed down the proverbial drain--useless to everyone. The incredible waste of such a wrongheaded policy is immoral in the extreme. I hope that your editorial will open the eyes of those who would slam the door on this promising research.

Eric Lengel
Fairfax, Va.


I believe you err in implying that a right to embryonic stem cell research can be derived from the U.S. Constitution's nonestablishment of religion clause. All moral positions are, in the end, derived in part from philosophical or religious assumptions. Thus, opposition to slavery was motivated in part by the statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Would the fact that religious believers were at the forefront of opposition to slavery or that Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches are filled with religious references invalidate the antislavery or civil rights movements on the grounds of the nonestablishment of religion? Of course not; nonbelievers in many cases hold similar positions. Likewise, atheists can be found who oppose abortion, and I suspect there are some who oppose embryonic stem cell research.

The nonestablishment clause refers to imposing religious beliefs on individuals; it does not imply that religion cannot inform moral deliberation, and it does not imply that no law can be motivated by religious impulses. Indeed, several of the U.S.'s founding fathers, including John Adams and George Washington, expressed doubt that the discipline and restraint required for self-governance could be maintained without a populace imbued with religious beliefs and values.

Ron Larson
Ann Arbor, Mich.


I want to congratulate you on your editorial. The religious right is stifling scientific research and must be fought at every step. The U.S. is becoming a laughingstock to the rest of the world and is even being surpassed by South Korea. ACS should take a stand on this issue. Thank you again for doing your part.

Tom Smith
Oak Harbor, Wash.


Science of alternative medicine

In the "Just How Valid Is Alternative Medicine?" two-book review, it would perhaps have been both fairer and more enlightening to have the pro and con sides reviewed by different people (C&EN, May 16, page 45). I am a chemist and materials researcher, and I have spent considerable time and money studying this topic for 10 years, along with a group of world-class colleagues (physicists, chemists, physicians, and so on). I read the literature in depth, both pro and con, and attend and organize conferences on the subject, so I can offer the following comments on the review.

I am appalled at the widespread misuse of the term "evidence-based medicine" by physicians. Where would chemistry be if AgCl formed from AgNO3 and NaCl, but only 60 to 75% of the time? And how would chemical engineering survive if our chemical plants killed off a minimum of 250,000 Americans per year ("evidence-based medicine" kills 110,000 people from drug interactions, 75,000 from medical mistakes, 75,000 from hospital iatrogenics, and so on). This elephant under the carpet of evidence-based medicine is, strangely, ignored by your reviewer as a benchmark.

Regarding the debate on homeopathy, physicians often refer in a lofty manner to the "laws of physics and chemistry" that make homeopathy impossible. Unfortunately, it is their science that is sadly limited. The high-school-level idea that the concentration of a solute can have no effect if it dips below the Avogadro limit implies that liquids can only be changed by a chemical modifier in solution. That is pure ignorance. The materials science world's routine use of epitaxy from a solid to convey structural information to a liquid, with zero in solution, should lay that nonsensical claim to rest. Indeed, the fact that the liquid phase can have as many "polymorphs" as the solid phase in pressure-temperature space has been established in the mainstream literature for some 30 years and was recently rediscovered in Science (2004, 306, 848). Perhaps the reviewer could also explain in what way the piles of research on Vioxx and Celebrex duly anointed by his evidence-based, peer-reviewed-dozens-of-times medicine are a worthy model for chemists.

In India, on Oct. 28, 2004, in the great hall of the Indian National Science Academy, its president, Martanda V. S. Valiathan, a distinguished biomedical scientist, gave the opening talk in a symposium I helped put together titled "Science of Traditional Medicine." He was followed by me and Raghunath A. Mashelkar, director general of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research of India (with some 40 national labs under him) and a foreign member of the Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and of Sciences. He presented India's strategy of "reverse pharmacology" based on the country's huge reservoir of data on its Ayurvedic tradition. This rather obvious route builds on empirical observations and data from hundreds of generations to select the best, and to ensure at least the safety of, specific candidates for drugs. This kind of good science is the right antidote to the old and comfortable attitudes that have contributed to the U.S. health care crisis.

Rustum Roy
University Park, Pa.


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