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Bush's Stem Cell Policy: A Biological Confidence Game

On the streets of America's larger cities small-time scoundrels used to play a game called 'three-card monte.' The game used three cards, one an ace. The cards were displayed face up to onlookers, then turned downwards and shifted around. After a short period of such shifting, onlookers were asked to point out the ace.

They eagerly bet money on their certainty that they knew which downward-facing card was the ace. The betting onlooker invariably guessed wrongly: What seemed to be the ace would turn out to be another card, the ace turning up where it was not expected. As the old saying goes, the hand is quicker than the eye.

This summer, in the slow hot months when the Congress looked toward its long recess and the American president dreamt about a month's vacation on his Texas ranch, the biggest issue in American politics concerned something called stem-cell research. The issue was a major one - more on that follows - but the central fact beneath the political machinations was, like the ace in a game of three-card monte, hard to follow. The real issue was not where it was expected to be. Those who watched the game saw one thing: a debate about ethics and health. What was really going on, the political hand being quicker than the eye, was something quite different. Cui bono is an old Latin saying: Who benefits? That was the question which was almost never asked.

There is a widespread hope that through researching stem cells, and figuring out how to turn on the appropriate switches, scientists might be able to discover more than how heart muscles are made. Scientists might also discover how to make cells in a laboratory which, when injected into a person who has suffered a heart attack, will repair his/her damaged heart. Stem cells, then, may be the foundation of what could be a medical revolution. Already there is talk about a cure for Parkinson's disease and diabetes, a capacity to reverse organ damage and paralysis.

But the possibility of such stem cell research in America ran into a problem. Stem cells are 'harvested' from embryos in the first stage of existence. Those embryos have had a specific source. When American couples have difficulty conceiving a child, they can turn to artificial insemination, in which egg and sperm are joined in the laboratory and allowed to develop through mitosis until a viable embryo can be inserted into the womb of the mother. The process of artificial insemination depends on redundancy: it often takes several tries to get a successful implantation, so many embryos are created.

Thus, for every successfully implanted embryo, there are several other embryos that are not implanted. These are kept frozen, until the infertile couple is sure they want not more children. It is these 'left-over' embryos which are the source of the stem cells on which scientists have been experimenting. Scientists don't need a new embryo for each experiment.

The specific problem for American science is that abortion is a politically explosive issue. Anti-abortion forces maintain that life begins at conception, so that any 'destruction' of an embryo to harvest stem cells is murder and hence unconscionable. Other forces want a cure for Alzheimer's disease, a remedy for spinal injuries and brain damage, new ways to bring richness and dignity to the lives of those who have bodily illness or injury. Both groups, antiabortion and pro-medical research, are on the side of 'life.' Both sides are opposed to one another.

In the midst of this controversy, President George W. Bush had to decide whether the federal government would allow its massive funding of scientific research to be used for work on stem cells. Science and the majority of the medical establishment, plus a majority of Americans, were on one side. The antiabortion forces, which had won him the Republican presidential nomination over his opponent John McCain, were on the other.

Mr. Bush, amid great media scrutiny, had to choose which side of the stem-cell research debate he would support. In a seemingly bold move that almost no one foresaw, he decided to take a middle route. Mr. Bush agreed that there would be no more destruction of human life to harvest stem cells, no matter how life-saving those cells might be. But because some stem cells had already been harvested, this fait accompli could be the basis of generating future stem cells by laboratory propagation. It was at the time hailed as a brilliant compromise, in which Mr. Bush gave something to each side.

Since that moment, though, the efficacy of the compromise has crumbled. Mr. Bush seems to have sold out his antiabortion constituency by saying that he would not allow future 'murder' but that the fruits of past 'murder' would be allowable.

Proponents of stem-cell research, too, have found the decision increasingly unsatisfactory. Mr. Bush claimed that there were sixty stem cell 'lines' in existence, and that they would be ample for research. At first investigators were only able to locate 23 or 24 lines, although more recent figures indicate there may be sixty lines, world-wide. But some of them may prove useless for experimentation. Additionally, many medical scientists have expressed concern that such a limited number of lines may not give physicians room to cope with the frequent rejection of cells which do not closely match those of the recipient.


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Still, Mr. Bush weathered the political storm of the moment. But the whole controversy, like a game of three card-monte, directed the public eye to the wrong card. The ace was hidden somewhere else: cui bono? The debate about research and stem-cell lines obscured rather than revealed what was most fundamentally at issue.

Every patent gives the patent holder the right to prevent other people or institutions from making, or using, or selling, their invention. US patent number 6,200,806, held by the University of Wisconsin, claims the human stem cell as intellectual property. The patent thus gives the University of Wisconsin control over who can work with stem cells and for what purpose.

Further, the university in turn licensed many rights to this patent to a private enterprise, Geron Corporation. Geron has all rights to develop stem cells into liver, muscle, nerve, pancreas, blood and bone cells. Geron has also claimed rights to another twelve derivative cell types.

"This company is going to dominate regenerative medicine," says Dr, Thomas Okarna, president of Geron. "It is what I came here to do." Explaining further, Okarna says, "I'm not apologetic about our intellectual property. We paid for it, we earned it and we deserve it."

"We paid for it, we earned it and we deserve it." What Dr. Okarna is talking about are the generative cells in each and every human embryo, the cells that make human muscles, bones, blood, nerves, livers. This small California corporation is laying claim to the building blocks of human life - a shared human heritage, a shared global heritage. Dr. Okarna believes he owns, and has the right to profit from, anything which is derived by scientific experiment on the human body. He owns our biological potential, yours and mine.

His claim is not very different from that of another American company, RiceTec, which in 1997 patented Basmati rice. Basmati rice, developed in India and Pakistan over many centuries by the millions of people who inhabit and farm in Punjab, is the shared resource of a whole people. The attempt to patent it for private ownership by a corporation - an attempt just recently circumscribed, but not foiled - has been termed a "theft of indigenous plant wealth" by activist Vandana Shiva. The companies seeking to patent life forms are by no means only American, Syngenta and Aventis being the two most prominent of the European corporations patenting plant germ plasma.

Nor is Dr. Okarna's attempt different from successful efforts by various corporations to patent parts of the human genome. Already, many corporations have patents on individual human genes. The chemical instructions, the genetic codes, that make us who and what we are, which create not just beating hearts and functioning lungs, but the length of one's eyelashes, the tint of one's skin, the particular shape of each finger: these are in the process of being patented. Increasingly, our own genes do not belong to us. The genes are in us, but we do not own the right to use or exploit them for any purpose.

What is taking place is the largest game of three-card monte in our post-modern times. As Americans, and others in the world, argue about the ethics of modern research, corporations are buying up the rights to every biological process and to every life form. Capitalist speculation has found the mother lode of all investment. What is going on is nothing less than the privatization of life itself.

If scientists do succeed with stem-cell research and find a cure for diabetes, stroke, heart disease and nerve damage, the price will be exorbitant. Monopolies can set whatever price they wish. The potential of our own human bodies will be sold back to us - for those who can afford it - at an enormous cost. That is the hidden ace in the three-card monte: The life process itself is being patented, for the purpose of generating profits, as the 'intellectual property' of one corporation or another.

Only when the game is unmasked and citizens worldwide see that their common biological heritage and indeed their own bodies are being stolen from them, can nations move forward to develop new international protocols on intellectual property. Surely such protocols are urgently needed.

Huck Gutman

Huck Gutman

Huck Gutman, a professor at the University of Vermont, was formerly Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

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