EVERYBODY'S AN EMBRYOLOGIST THIS WEEK
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, July 24, 2006 -- All of a sudden, the whole world is filled with stem cell experts, and they're all on talk radio or writing opinion columns.
I almost thought I was in embryology class again when I heard radio pundits talking about blastocysts and pluripotency. Well maybe not pluripotency (they can't actually be expected to know anything that pertinent), but they have some idea, however microscopic, of the root concept. Next thing you know, we'll be hearing all about gastrulation, the notochord, and the neural crest.
The context of course is President Bush's very first veto, which killed a bill that had a few Republican senatorial votes and a lot of public support. In opposing stem cell research, the president is alleged to have damaged American science and destroyed the hopes of diabetics, paraplegics, Alzheimer's patients and millions more. Or, alternatively, he has upheld the sanctity of life against the amoral satanic hordes.
It seems a little strange even to be discussing this, because yours truly has watched thousands of early blastulas (embryos at the stage where there are only a few cells) under the microscope. I don't feel particularly guilty for having cut them, injected them, or thrown them into the trash, because for one thing, they were frog embryos.
But to the embryologist, the process of frog or mouse or even sea urchin development has marked similarities to human development. The cells sort out a little differently because the sea urchins and the frogs are self-contained little balls, while the mammals have to go through some additional effort in interacting with the uterine wall.
But in every case, the succeeding developmental stages are very similar. Think of all of us, frogs and humans alike, as starting as a little ball of cells that will undergo growth and development.
First, there is the creation of a little groove or pore through which cells migrate to the interior to form the first rudiments of the intestine. I'll bet most of you didn't know that, did you - that our first and most elemental structure is the terminus of the large intestine, followed by the tube itself? When one cult-like self-help guru reportedly referred to his followers as "tubes," that wasn't far off the mark; in fact, my instructor in developmental biology pointed out that the basic embryonic structure was "a tube within a tube."
Curiously (and how this happens is a very deep subject), the interaction of that rudimentary intestine with the surrounding, skin-like layer of cells induces an interaction that creates the central nervous system. Imagine that - the brain is most related to the skin at the most fundamental level, and only comes into being in response to the formation of the intestine.
This all precisely and literally true - first we are the gut and then we are the gut and the brain. The fine details get a little complicated, but the overall pattern is clear. The first structures develop, and then other structures (like the little clumps of cells that will eventually grow into blood and circulatory system). And it's true for the frog, the rat, the human, and pretty much every other form of life that has a backbone, and it's even true for some invertebrates.
And looking at all those similarities, biologists can perhaps be forgiven for failing to view the earliest stages of human embryonic development with quite the religious passion that the Republican core has supplied. When biologists point out that the early frog and the early human look substantially alike, their underlying assumption set also comes into play: The frog and the dog and the human are substantially alike in their earlier stages, and it is only later that we start to diverge. Perhaps biologists are spiritually insensitive, but they tend, I think, to view the earliest human embryos as nearly the same - a collection of unthinking, uncaring cells - to the embryonic forms of other species.
And this, I think, is the gist of the controversy. To the scientist working at the bench, the embryo is a complicated system, but a system that can be understood according to its mechanics and its chemistry. The process of understanding may take a long time, but the underlying presumption is that it is not only possible but inevitable that we shall understand the process. To the biologist, this would be great progress.
Biologists are also more likely to be gradualists in the way they view the formation of "human life." Scientists don't have any problem considering a late-stage fetus to be a living human being, but they see its formation as a gradual process that begins with something that is a long ways from being human in the full sense of the term.
Compare that approach to what seems to be coming from the White House. Their underlying assumption, as they make clear to one and all, is that life begins at fertilization. The problem for the more secular folks is in understanding how that phrase "life begins" is meant to be taken. By framing the argument in this way, the proponents suggest an underlying viewpoint: Human life is sacred, and that sanctity is present even at the one or two-cell stage.
This is to attach a spiritual and religious dimension to that fertilized egg and its successor structures. Perhaps the president and his supporters consider the embryo to already have a human soul and therefore to be beyond manipulation or destruction.
That seems to be the implication of President Bush's description of early embryos as "innocent life." Considering that the early stage embryo has no adult tissues - no nerve cells to think with, no gut tube to digest with, no lungs to breath with - it's fair enough to call that structure "innocent." It is the further implication though, that the blastula has standing as a human being, that is controversial. If we assign that early embryo fully human status, then it follows that we shouldn't cut it up for parts, no matter how useful those parts would be to someone else. It would be the moral equivalent of stealing both kidneys from someone against his will, because the forfeiture of his life would save two other lives.
But for some observers, the blastula stage embryo isn't sacred or endowed with an immortal soul, and according to that viewpoint, its sacrifice in the name of science is legitimate.
The reaction in the mass media to the veto has been mixed at best. There are countless diagrams of cells and mice and little pictorial syringes, but the basic biology is generally treated in a rather cursory manner. What's even further off the mark, I suspect, is any comprehension among reporters of what is motivating the scientists. It is not so much the future applications in treating diseases, but the sheer intellectual interest in figuring out how the ability to create adult structures is gained and lost. That has been a central interest in biology for much of the past century, and the ability to follow the track of scientific advancement is the core motivation.
Still, the argument has continued, with much of the "same old same old;" that is to say, opponents talking right past each other for hour after hour, failing to engage the underlying religious argument but instead arguing over whether or not stem cell research can be carried out using cells from adult donors.
Among the universe of conservative talk radio hosts, there has been at least one exception to Republican doctrine. John Kobylt of KFI (AM 640, Los Angeles) tends to deviate from the party line on occasion. He described the president's position as "primitive thinking," and made clear that he was utterly contemptuous of the reasoning behind the veto. In a long discussion with his partner Ken Chiampou, he made clear that he would consider donating his own frozen embryos to science. Short Takes
KFI made it into the news by taking the number one position for Los Angeles radio, quite a coup for an AM talk station. Its competitor KABC (AM 790) was way down the list, with a listener fraction less than half that of KFI. One possible interpretation is that KFI's top hosts (other than Rush Limbaugh, who has a following of his own) deviate from the Republican Party line on occasion.
They may not like Democrats all that much, but at least they manage to find new things to talk about. Whatever the ultimate reason, the ultra-orthodoxy of the KABC crew doesn't do half so well as the more freewheeling, independent KFI approach.
Out of curiosity, I tuned in to one of the lesser known KABC hosts, Rob Nelson, who currently does a Saturday evening show. For somebody with such a good looking resume (numerous radio and TV appearances, magazine interviews and even a cover on US News & World Report, he is a disappointment. It seemed like Nelson was trying to hide a decent level of intelligence among some rather boilerplate Republican views.
When a caller suggested using nuclear weapons on Iran in the event of a terrorist attack, Nelson was barely able to respond. The same caller mentioned that the screener had suggested that he include support of missile defense in his comments. So much for the assertion that there is anything fair about the way callers are selected. It remains to be seen whether Nelson can develop a little personality to go with his propagandizing.
It also remains to be seen whether this squeeky-voiced stereotypical conservative will last much longer.