Monday, March 14, 2005 | Last November, California voters passed Proposition 71 which created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Over the next 10 years, the institute will distribute $3 billion to fund stem cell research in California. Here is one perspective on how soon we can expect this research to be translated into actual products.
In 1995 James A. Thompson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison first isolated non-human embryonic stem cell lines. In 1998 Dr. Thompson and his talented team extended the lines to human embryonic stem cells.
It is crucial to understand that this major step forward in regenerative medicine is less than a decade old, that most of the talk, and it is uninformed talk, about treatment and cure is largely premature and grossly exaggerated. After all, nucleic acids, the molecular substrate of the genetic code, were first discovered in 1869 by Friedrich Miescher (1844-1895) in Felix Hoppe-Seyler’s laboratory at the castle of Tubingen, Germany.
It will doubtless take a long time, perhaps not as long as for DNA and RNA, but certainly much longer than a decade to make significant practical progress in stem cell research. For the best information on the subject, access the website of the National Academy of Sciences (www.nap.edu) and read or skim on-line, free, the book “Stem Cells & the Future of Regenerative Medicine” by the NAS Commission on Life Science, 2002.
By contrast, a much more convoluted related issue is the substantive challenge that has to be addressed to Roman Catholic and other religious authorities on the subject. The “right to life” which lies at the root of it, is actually a dead letter. Scholars of the scriptures, for example, including the Vatican, no longer accept the earlier erroneous reading of Genesis 38:9. The commandment “Thou shall not kill” does not even begin to cover all human life. Sperm cells and ova are alive and well long before they meet, and thus the question of when life begins is dejure meaningless. Life does not begin, it continues.
If all elements of life were deemed to be sacred, these religious authorities would require the ceremonial burial of every ova, sperm cell and every strand of hair. In this sense, when does a fetus become a person? The answer is not given by any church teaching. The conclusion has to be that religious authorities have no special mandate to replace individual conscience with any imperative they deem to be divine. In the last brutal analysis, they have nothing substantive to contribute to the issue. Just ask the soul of Galileo.
Dr. Elie A. Shneour, a native of France and WWII U.S. veteran, is president of Biosystems Institutes, Inc. and Research Director of Biosystems Research Institute of San Diego, with divisions near Paris, France and Osaka, Japan.