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The Real Future of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

In 2006 Missouri voters narrowly passed an amendment giving scientists a constitutional right to clone and destroy human embryos for scientific research. Among the claims made by pro-cloning supporters of Amendment 2 was that cloning and embryonic stem cell research offered the greatest hope for cell based therapies and cures, potentially offering great relief for those suffering from terrible diseases and disabilities. But some scientists and researchers have been backing off these claims in recent years. The latest to do so is James Thompsonembryologist James Thompson, who isolated the first ESCs. In a Q and A with Forbes he says:

I do think there will be some niches where transplantation is important, but I think people are grossly underestimating how hard it is going to be for most diseases. I think there is some low-hanging fruit people can go after, but for things like neurological disease, it’s just so hard to get things reconnected. It’s so much better to understand why cells are dying and to prevent it

It just captures the imagination, the whole idea that you could just make a new part, and it is very seductive

In other words, it’s really just a fantasy. Where was this guy when we needed him two years ago?

But, if it’s not going to lead to transplantation therapies and cures as we’ve all been promised, then what is the real future and promise of ESC research?

I really believe personally that the value of these cells is not in transplantation. It’s hard to predict the future, but my guess is 20 years from now if you look backwards, 90% of the value of these cells will be in things that don’t make the front pages. It will be things like drug screening, which is kind of boring, but it does get drugs to market that are safer and faster…

These cells suddenly give us access to all the bits of the human body we’ve never had access to. That’s going to lead to understanding why certain cells are dying, and more traditional therapies are likely to prevent them from dying. Parkinson’s, if you can diagnose somebody early in the course of that disease and arrest it, that’s as good as a cure. And that I think is fairly probable.

So instead of using human embryos as crops for harvesting stem cells, Thompson suggests that they’ll be used more effectively as human guinea pigs for drug testing and monitoring the early development different diseases. I suspect this was the intent of such research all along, they just needed a better marketing strategy for promoting the use of human embryos for research and CURES! CURES! CURES! proved to be more effective at winning the public over than just drug testing. Neither end, however, justifies the use of human life as an instrument of scientific experimentation.

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