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Stem Cell Research, The Iraq War, False Victories and Deception

by John Smith

As the father of a quadriplegic son and uncle to a nephew in Iraq, the president's domestic and foreign policy strike me as curiously parallel constructions. Both shroud themselves in a fog of political discourse. Reactions to recent developments in stem cell science and Iraq dovetail for the pundits cutting pieces to fit the bizarre picture puzzle at the White House.

Acolytes trumpet the lull of violence in Iraq and herald the latest breakthrough in regenerative medicine. In each instance, the rigid dichotomy, between war and reason and science and religion, disguises itself as foresight ripening into wisdom. Unmentioned amidst this re-reading of the decision-making are the false pretenses for going to war and the flagrant deception of an unsuspecting public about embryonic stem cell research. (ESCR)

People living with illness and injuries for which regenerative medicine provides hope are both ecstatic and anxious about the recent spate of advances in the field of cellular biology.

First, on November 14th, scientists at the Oregon Primate Center reported the creation of embryonic stem cells through the process of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. (SCNT) The procedure, performed on macaque monkeys, takes the nucleus from an ordinary cell of one macaque, and places it into an unfertilized, de-nucleated egg obtained from a female monkey. The resulting transfer creates a new cell, which can be stimulated to divide and develop into embryonic stem cells possessing the DNA of the first monkey.

Then, six days later, two independent research institutes, in the USA and Japan, reported the derivation of embryonic-like stem cells via the process of dedifferentiation. Genetic manipulation induces an ordinary cell to revert to the embryonic-like stage of cellular development. The field of regenerative medicine now has a new acronym to play with: iPS or, induced pluripotent stem cells.

The second announcement appears more efficient. It does not involve destroying an embryo and therefore sheds controversial baggage. Some say iPS eliminates the necessity of SCNT and all other research into embryonic stem cells.

However, warning lights flash for individuals actually living with conditions such as Juvenile Diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and spinal cord injury. Advocacy groups for these and other patient populations long ago grasped the implications of research options touted in recent days. They live on the informed side of this debate, months, if not years, ahead of the layman's understanding of the practical aspects of therapies. The concern is that research in progress will be set aside while the less disputed method of iPS submits itself to rigorous inquiry: Hence, the agony and the ecstasy.

In 2001, early in the Bush presidency, unwary Americans looked to him for leadership on ESCR. Instead of truth, the president delivered fiction, camouflaged as a compromise. Additionally, Bush basked in the conceit that he was the first chief executive to allow such research. This claim stirred the consternation of those who knew better the consequences of his restrictive policy. Before scientists and journalists could repudiate the disinformation of his August 9th executive order, 9/11 intruded. Then, terrorism and later the debacle in Iraq came to dominate our society's consciousness.

The discovery of iPS did not occur in a vacuum. This science stands on the shoulders of ESCR vigorously pursued overseas and practiced at home under the constraints of Bush's signal social policy. In order to better understand how stem cells differentiate and develop, ESCR must continue. Speculation about the ultimate benefit of iPS is just that, speculation. Basic science research should not be a casualty of iPS as it was of the president's 2001 edict.

Yet now, six years later, the president attempts to spit the hook of that duplicity. The White House seeks vindication for the firmness of its moral position, which supposedly directed the science to devise non-controversial solutions. Side by side with this historical vanity rests the self-deception about reduced violence in Iraq. Evidently, the fact that 2007 took the highest toll on American lives bears no weight in assessing the success of last January's unsustainable surge. Such hypocrisy on Iraq, coexisting with equally abhorrent deceit about domestic policy, diminishes respect for America abroad and the Republican Party at home.

The administration's disdain for our country's most vulnerable citizens, soldiers in Iraq and those living with chronic illness and injury, hides behind a smokescreen of jingoism and moral scolds. For a generation of Americans optimistic about the potential of stem cell science, the sand is running out of their hourglass. Soldiers in Iraq, many of whose lives are irrevocably changed, are mere byproducts of a war searching for a rationale. Missing are the sagas of ordinary Americans victimized by the consequences of bad policy. These unique lives vanished into the fog of politics.

John Smith writes commentary on the science and politics of disability. To learn more about his work, visit his website, The Other Side of Broken.

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