Of Stem Cells and Politics: Letter to the Editor

Amie Newman

Our Bodies, Ourselves author Judy Norsigian and politics of biotechnology expert, Marcy Darnovsky, respond with a clarification to my recent post on stem cell research politics in the Washington state governor's race.

I received this email from two highly-respected women, one in women’s
health and the other in the politics and social justice implications of
biotechnology. I’m thrilled to be corrected by the best! Judy Norsigian
is Executive Director of Our Bodies Ourselves and co-author of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and Marcy Darnovsky is the Associate Executive Director for Center for Genetics and Society.
The letter classifies some of what I addressed about adult stem cell
research vs. embryonic stem cell research in a previous post as misleading and provides
fascinating information on developments in these areas so please read



We share your dismay
about the way the McCain-Palin ticket is fanning the flames of the culture wars,
and appreciate your reminder that Palin’s decision to have a child with Down
syndrome is not a reason for pro-choice people to criticize her – in fact, just
the opposite.

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We also agree with
your criticism of the Rossi campaign for opposing embryonic stem cell research,
but want to take issue with a few things in your post. When you talk about adult
stem cells, you seem to be alluding not to the adult stem cells that are
isolated from bone marrow and various other body tissues, but to the recently
discovered process of “reprogramming” ordinary body cells into stem cells.

There’s been huge
progress in cell reprogramming in less than a year, and most in the field agree
that it’s very promising. It’s misleading to say that “adult stem cell research
has not been shown to yield anything close to the same potential for
break-throughs on a range of medical conditions.” Both cell reprogramming and
stem cell research using “leftover” IVF embryos have potential; both present
medical and ethical risks; both need to be pursued and carefully

The stem cell
controversy has revolved mostly around the status of human embryos, but those
like us who support embryo research have a number of other issues to consider,
especially regarding the tiny subset of embryonic stem cell research that uses
cloning techniques. One big one: women’s health.

The concern about
cloning-based stem cell research (also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer or
SCNT) is its requirement for very large numbers of women’s eggs. As you probably
know, retrieving those eggs carries significant risks.
Although these risks are similar
to the risks for egg extraction techniques in the IVF context – and thus most people believe that the
techniques must be well-studied and reasonable – that is not true. (A paper by
the Reproductive Health Technologies Project outlines some of the important
unknowns, especially the risks of the GnRH agonist Lupron that is so commonly
used. Though some of the most responsible researchers instead use Antagon, an
antagonist that has FDA approval for this use – unlike Lupron – this still begs
the question about long-term health effects that women have a right to know

SCNT is still
supported by many Democrats and progressives, in spite of the risks of egg
retrieval, and the fact that this approach remains very speculative. No stem
cells have ever been produced with SCNT, though it’s common to read misleading
accounts that suggest otherwise. Especially now that cell reprogramming offers
the likelihood of producing disease-specific and patient-specific stem cells, we
question whether putting women at risk for SCNT is justifiable.

Marcy Darnovsky and Judy


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