STEM CELL RESERACH: Still Embattled after All These Years |

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STEM CELL RESERACH: Still Embattled after All These Years

Had stem cell research not been obstructed by political and religious opposition, it would probably have arrived by now at effective treatments for a number of severe chronic diseases.

Stem cell research seized headlines at the beginning of this century, promising to revolutionize medicine by healing illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injury, and heart disease.

These are all illnesses of severe cell deterioration or injury—illnesses that are in principle curable by embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to build every single tissue in the human body. Hence, when these cells were first isolated and replicated in 1998, it struck scientists at the time that the door now lay wide open to the advance of regenerative medicine.

Yet stem cell research has to date not lived up to its immense potential. Two narratives are commonly told about this history, and they are at loggerheads with one another. The first is that the research has in fact steadily advanced and that clinical trials will soon yield effective stem cell– based therapies. This narrative acknowledges that stem cell research has run into obstacles, but it holds that such challenges are only to be expected, given the newness of the science.

Pitted against this sunny evaluation is an incriminating one: stem cell research, combining scientific hubris with hype, has been an overreaching, grandiose enterprise that has under-delivered on its therapeutic promises and proven ethically abhorrent as well scientifically barren.

Whether the story is told in a way that makes the glass look halffull or empty, both the positive view and the negative view misread the actual history, failing to recognize that it has been and remains political opposition that has been primarily responsible for slowing down stem cell research in the United States and worldwide. Had the research received the support that it merits, it would probably have arrived by now at effective treatments for a number of severe chronic diseases.

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