Stem Cells in Wonderland

The White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland
The White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.

In Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, Alice in Wonderland, there is a wonderful passage that came to mind as I read the latest response from the self-proclaimed ‘adult stem cell researchers’ suing the government to stop federally-funded ES cell research:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”

If you read the statement submitted to the appeals court (PDF) by the plaintiffs in the case, one is reminded of Humpty Dumpty’s statement. These folks trying to stop ES cell research play fast and loose with reality to suit their purpose. Their brief is scornful and contemptuous of the government, NIH, and Director Collins.

One of their most specious arguments is the idea that the two researchers who filed the suit (one who has never applied for NIH funding and one who already has almost a half a million in NIH funding) will be irreparably harmed if NIH is allowed to fund ES cell research projects– with the harm coming from ‘competition’.  At the same time, turning the world upside down, they argue that the injunction banning all ES cell research, which affects 100s of projects and labs, 100s of jobs, and an entire field of science, causes no harm.

Like me, you might be scratching your head and saying ‘what the heck?’ Up is down. Black is white.

Competition is part of life in science. The argument that the two adult stem cell researchers are harmed by competing with researchers who do ES cell research is just plain ignorant.  As I’ve said before, you could make the same argument that dumb researchers are harmed by smart ones due to competition. What about all the money that goes to cancer research, does that not harm research into say heart attacks by competing for NIH funds?

Another up-is-down kind of argument put forth to the court is that ANY present or future research on ES cells, even on existing lines of ES cells generated a decade ago, destroys embryos. This argument asserts that ‘research’, as they define it, even by many different labs over periods of an indefinite period of time, is all the same and can be viewed as one linear progression, one great research project. Does that mean I’m working on the same project as Darwin? Da Vinci? Where do you draw the line? Of course this argument is false. Even the Bush Jr administration realized this and allowed research on existing ES cell lines.

The plaintiffs also make the weak argument that since NIH has resumed its review and funding of ES cell research/applications since the appeals court temporary stay, that any delay imposed by the injunction (n the absence of a longer stay) against ES cell research would not be harmful and NIH could simply start up wherever it left off before such an injunction. They could not be more wrong.  Damage has already been done and a longer injunction would amplify that further.

The Obama administration has filed a brief in reply to the plaintiff’s “Stem Cells In Wonderland” piece that you can read here (pdf).  Of course I am biased as a stem cell scientist (although my lab works on both adult and embryonic stem cell research as do most stem cell labs), but boy this sure sounds more like reality to me, more like a book of nonfiction.

So I’d ask you, do we really want Humpty Dumpty, who defines anything the way he simply wants, deciding the direction of our nation’s scientific research? Won’t it end up in a wacky Wonderland?