Making Lifesaving Choices
May 9, 2019
by David Prentice, PhD
The promises of biotechnology are legion. Many excellent opportunities do exist to develop lifesaving therapies. Many more provide a tempting siren song of “cures!” And if you’re in the healthcare field, at some point you will be asked about your position on some of these wonderful new cures on the horizon. Here’s a short list of some of the recent melodies being sung regarding medical miracles, as well as some truth regarding these apparent wonders.
Stem cell research and claims that they could “cure all known maladies” have prominently displayed these tempting lyrics, what one comic labeled the attitude of pre-conceptual science. Embryonic stem cells (and most pointedly, funding for their study) in particular were promoted with fervor, supposedly providing “an almost biblical power to cure through advances in embryonic stem cell research” and continue to be claimed as “important lifesaving research.” Yet not only has not a single life been saved, but thousands upon thousands, and likely millions, of young lives have been sacrificed on this altar.
Adult stem cells are the successful gold standard of stem cells, especially when it comes to patients and therapies. Adult stem cells are in fact the only type of stem cell to have shown validated, published results of therapeutic benefit to patients. Meanwhile, a review of stem cell research documents the ethical and practical failings of embryonic stem cells, and the profound success of adult stem cells, which by the end of 2012 had already helped over a million patients, undoubtedly approaching 2 million people now. Adult stem cell therapies, validated scientifically, are the life-affirming stem cell research, putting the patient first while not destroying the stem cell donor in the process. The informed, lifesaving choice is adult stem cell therapy.
Likewise, proponents of using aborted fetal tissue have made rampant claims about the successes achieved, from vaccines to transplants to screening of HIV drugs to study of development, and the necessity of continued taxpayer funding for use of fetal tissue. Yet these claims skirt the truth or evade it entirely. Fresh aborted fetal tissue has never been used in vaccine production, and even the historic cell lines are being replaced by modern, ethical sources for vaccine production, such as for the new shingles vaccine or the highly-successful Ebola vaccine. Fetal tissue transplants failed miserably, even making patients worse, while as noted above ethically-sourced adult stem cell transplants have shown amazing success. Humanized mice created using aborted fetal tissue to test drugs have numerous problems and rely on antiquated technology and thought, while newer methods are 50 times more efficient and provide superior, clinically-relevant models. And modern science was used to discover the mechanism of Zika virus action on the developing brain. The truly lifesaving choice is found in the ethical alternatives.
Proponents of the erroneously labeled “mitochondrial replacement therapy” claim it will safely prevent transmission of genetic diseases, and they have launched another effort to remove prohibitions on the manufacture and gestation of “three-parent embryos,” while another researcher has created three-parent embryos and wants to gestate them. Some of the rhetoric even disingenuously claims that Congress doesn’t want people to have healthy babies.
Yet as we’ve discussed previously, this unproven technique does not treat a single patient, but rather manufactures new individuals whom it is hoped will not have the genetic disease. And the scant evidence thus far weighs against that hope of eliminating the genetic mutation; mutated mitochondria remain present even after embryo reconstruction, and they have even been shown to increase in percentage over time, which can lead to disease symptomatology. Moreover, this technique actually does “nuclear transfer” not mitochondrial transfer, a fact now admitted by proponents who previously tried to cloud the terminology. The term “nuclear transfer” is a long-used euphemism for cloning. So promotion of this embryo construction method provides a gateway for human cloning as well as its use in genetic engineering of humans. The technique has already been used in attempts to improve standard assisted reproductive technology success rates, including birth of another three-parent baby. And alternatives that treat the patient instead of discarding her in favor of a new genetically-modified version are under development. The informed, lifesaving choice is rejection of three-parent embryo manufacture in favor of a focus on treatment of existing individuals.
The same basic principles apply regarding gene editing of embryos. The news in November 2018 that a Chinese scientist had created and birthed gene-edited twin girls whose genomes were supposedly altered to prevent HIV infection, led to a tepid outcry by the scientific and medical community. The primary outrage was not about what the scientist had done—creating genetically-engineered children—but more about the timing of the scientific move to birth these “designer babies.” Subsequent calls for a temporary moratorium only extend to putting gene-edited embryos into the womb, but would allow, and even encourage, experiments that create and destroy the young humans in experiments to perfect the genetic techniques. But a temporary moratorium only on gestating gene-edited children does not go far enough, and it does not respect human dignity or human life. We should turn away from the idea of engineering our offspring and humanity to suit our desires and to make “better human beings” and instead focus on truly lifesaving uses of genetic tools, many of which are already in planning and a few in clinical trials.
When we consider how to answer those questions of whether some new medical miracles are worthy of development, we need to speak the truth in love and answer with a view toward truly lifesaving choices that value human life and human dignity.