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Sex, lies and embryos

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Mouse adult stem cell-derived immune system cell (dendritic cell)President Barack Obama is rescinding the U.S. ban on research on new lines of embryonic stem cells. The narrative that his administration is promoting is that this research is "pro-science," and that the Bush ban on such research was "anti-science" due to ignorance about the potential of stem cells. To strengthen the narrative, the propagandists seek intentionally to confuse the difference between the two major types of stem cells used in research.

Therapies using so-called "adult" stem cells, which can be obtained without significant harm to the donor, show great promise as potential treatments for diseases from heart disease to diabetes. Embryonic stem cells, which are obtained only after killing the human donor, have so far proven to be more problematic, as they have a tendency to form tumors called teratomas.

Julia Dory Ransohoff, a 17-year-old prodigy who has conducted her own stem cell research, has appeared in the news as a finalist for the Intel Science Talent Search. She was invited to meet the President as part of the pro-embryonic stem cell research propaganda effort.

But here's the "lie," which is actually an omission meant to confuse: Ms. Ransohoff's research is not on embryonic stem cells at all. She used adult stem cells from bone marrow. She found that heterologous stem cells to treat heart disease elicit a greater immune response for female donors than for male donors (that's the "sex").

The tactic used by supporters of embryonic stem cell research is to cloud the ethical questions surrounding it by failing to distinguish between embryonic and adult stem cells. There is no serious ethical opposition to the use of adult stem cells. Bioethicists from all sides of the debate agree on that point. Failing to make the distinction is dishonest and dishonorable.

Image: Mouse dendritic cells (a type of immune system cell) derived from bone marrow adult stem cells. Source: National Cancer Institute.

Update: After I published this post, I saw this headline: "Obama moves to separate politics and science." Just as I said, the Obama administration is trying to paint the issue as one of noble science v. extremist politics, rather than as an ethical debate.

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