A recent article on what they mean in the political scheme this year:
“Protean”, from the shape-shifting god of Greek mythology, is a well-worn
adjective for describing the potential of stem cells. It works equally
well as a description of politics of stem cells, at least in the US.
After George Bush, Texan become President, restricted the use of human
embryonic stem cells, many scientist bitterly criticised him – and the
Republic Party – for closing the door on the most promising development
in medicine for decades. In the hyperventilated language of a 2003
article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “the Promethean prospect
of eternal regeneration awaits us”.
Now a Republican Texan would-be President, Rick Perry, is under fire, it
seems for taking these dreams seriously. Stanley Jones, a Houston
surgeon, in July, injected Mr Perry’s own stem cells to treat his ailing
back. As well, Mr Perry is directing millions of dollars into adult stem
cell research, which he sees as a potential boost to the Texas economy
and an alternative to embryonic stem cells. "It is my hope that Texas
will become the world's leader in the research and use of adult stem
cells," he has written. "With the right policies in place, we can lead
the nation in advancing adult-stem-cell research that will treat
diseases, cure cancers and, ultimately, save lives."
This sounds remarkably similar to remarks made by President Obama when he
loosened his predecessor’s restrictions: “these tiny cells may have the
potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most
devastating diseases and conditions”.
How has the scientific community responded? Judging from an investigative
feature in Nature, with great hostility. “We must protect patients from
risky treatments advanced by overzealous, even greedy, entrepreneurs,"
wrote Bettie Sue Masters, of the University of Texas Health Science
Center in San Antonio. The Food and Drug Administration is cracking down
on doctors spruiking stem cell treatments. "If Perry was treated in the
United States, it was clearly in violation" of FDA regulations, a former
FDA official told Nature.
Such is the Protean nature of politics. Once again stem cells are shaping
up to be a key theme in a presidential campaign. But this time will the
Republicans be selling hope, and the Democrats sour scepticism and
high-minded ethical reservations? The 2012 campaign will be an
interesting showdown for bioethics as well. ~ Nature, Sept 20