L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

05 April 2007 Blog Home : April 2007 : Permalink

Stem Cells and Public Opinion

If ever there was a topic where policy should not be made up by asking random people what they think then stem cell research is it. Oh sure I don't say that we should let only scientists make the choice, but I do think we should insist that the decision makers should actually understand the basics of what it is that are deciding on. I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of people, including almost all bloviating politicians, wouldn't know a stem cell from a hole in the head. Since politicians, advised by aides and unacountable bureaucrats, are now setting policy on what sorts of stem cell research is (or is not) permissible, they really ought to get a basic understanding before they pronounce.

In the UK the government is minded to ban "hybrid" stem cells because as the BBC and the Register report. From the BBC:

The government has proposed a ban because of what it has called "public unease". Opponents say there is "global" opposition to such research. [...]

After a public consultation, the government proposed an outright ban on hybrid embryos and is due to publish a draft Bill next month.

Here's the deal. I bet the "public" who were consulted had very little or no information on which to base their opinion because they don't really grasp what happens. As the register explains (better than the BBC IMO):

Hybrid embryos are created using cloning techniques to insert adult human DNA into an empty animal egg. Opposition from within government has cited unspecific "public unease" over the technique, which has angered scientists, who say the embryos are already not allowed to develop beyond 14 days under law, and would be used to develop therapeutic techniques rather than treat patients.

Many of us are uncomfortable with experimentation on human embryo stem cells - depending on how the embryos are obtained I am reasonably comfortable but there are undoubtendly potential experiments that I would oppose - but most of us have far less of a problem with either experimentation on animals or tests on human volunteers. A hybrid embyonic stem cell is essentially the animal embryo given the DNA of an adult human (probably the experimenter him/herself). The human donor has given his permission and the embryo is a non-viable collection of cells not much more complex than a yeast and Even strict vegans fail to get worked up about the deaths of yeasts, molds, bacteria that happen to be on the food they eat. In fact they don't get upset about the deaths of the occasional insect. Animal embryos less than 14 days old are far below insects in terms of their life lacking basic things like a nervous system, let alone a brain or a capability for response to any but the most basic stimuli. If you don't have a problem with the deaths of millions of yeast cells in the manufacture of the staples of life such as bread or beer then why would you care about a ball of cells being used to develop basic scientific knowledge?

But a few uneducated scare-mongerers can get this sort of thing banned because they don't explain the difference between research and treatment or between embryos and phoetuses. If you want to understand the current state of the art (more or less) then this PNAS article is a good start. If you want to see what sort of a mess uneducated scare mingerers canmake of perfectly valid science read this BBC article about plant grown insulin and (just for fun) compare it with this one about heart stem cells where no one seems to be complaining at all.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin