It was supposed to be the Holy Grail of medicine. Human embryonic stem cells (hES) were going to save humanity. But when George W. Bush struck a compromise between wide-open research and a total ban, he was castigated by liberals who called him anti-science. Bush had concerns about the ethics of it all, but the Left wouldn’t hear of it.

However, since embryonic lines were restricted, some scientists pursued another area of research; adult stem cells. Adult cells were already curing diseases by themselves, but they couldn’t differentiate into as many cells as the embryonic type. This new research attempted to coax adult stem cells into their embryonic state. These were called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells).

It worked. And the ethical issue that George W. Bush brought up were no longer an issue. Ethics matter, Bush recognized it, and science (given a push to resolve it) came up with an alternative. Should science have ethical boundaries? That’s a perennial question, but Bush set this particular boundary, and he was right to do so.

And now?

Foes of human embryo research were called troglodytes and religious fundamentalists; they were frauds waging war on genuine science. Their scientific credentials were questioned. They were accused of being callous and indifferent to the suffering of patients with chronic illness.

And yet they were right. Not one person has been cured with embryonic stem cells. Not one.

The controversy ran out of steam almost immediately after Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka developed induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) in 2007, a feat for which he was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. His cells apparently have all the potential of embryonic cells without the ethical baggage. Leading scientists quietly stopped working with hES cells and moved to the new cells.

Nonetheless, some scientists still insisted that hES cells were the gold standard; destructive embryo research would always be essential for the advancement of science.

Now, in the concluding act of the stem cell wars, a paper in Nature Biotechnology has suggested that iPS cells and hES cells are functionally equivalent — effectively meaning that there is no need to destroy embryos either for research or for therapies. If it is true — and it needs to be confirmed by other researchers — it is the stem cell equivalent of receiving the surrender of the last Japanese soldier on some remote island in the Philippines. Whether or not the findings of Konrad Hochedlinger and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston are correct, the war is over.

Ethics in science still matters, or ought to. Don’t hold your breath waiting for an apology.

    Filed under: ScienceStem Cells

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