Not a lot has been said about embryonic stem-cell research in this presidential campaign, in stark contrast to previous years when this issue stood prominently with marriage equality in the culture wars of politics. President Obama supports taxpayer-funded embryonic stem-cell research. GOP nominee Mitt Romney opposes it. Here’s a nuanced account of Romney’s position.
But the issue is certain to come up now that the 2012 Nobel Prize in medicine is going to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for their groundbreaking discovery that cells in the body can be reprogrammed and customized for treatments of diseases, including Parkinson’s and diabetes.
The political gamechanger is that the work of the British researcher and the Japanese scientist paved the way to making the equivalent of embryonic stem cells without using actual embryonic cells. The discovery sidesteps the ethical and political questions that have plagued researchers and Congress. Embryos are destroyed when stem cells are extracted from them. That extraction is considered by those who oppose abortion rights to be tantamount to taking a life. On those grounds they oppose embryonic stem-cell research.
I disagree with that viewpoint because a) I’m pro-choice and support a woman’s right to prevent conception or terminate it and b) stem-cell researchers rely on discarded embryonic stem cells from fertility clinics. Those embryos were not going to create life.
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This Seattle Times editorial and this one urged then-President George W. Bush to loosen restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research. President Obama resumed federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
In addition to a great leap for stem-cell research, I find the two men’s lives to offer a poignant narrative about scientific research’s long arc. Gurdon, 79, had been best known for his 1962 discovery that DNA from specialized cells of frogs, like skin or intestinal cells, could create new tadpoles. That discovery cemented DNA’s ability to drive the formation of all cells of the body. And that same year, Yamanaka was born. He is now 50.
The cells research that 50 years ago did not seem to have medical value, does now. Congratulations to two men, a generation apart but united in their determination to uncover the huge potential of stem cells.
AP Photo/Kyodo News 2008