Guest blogger Kate Tuttle: Imagine that you found out your child has a rare, incurable disease that will rob him of his eyesight by the time he graduates from high school. It's genetic: He got it from one of his parents, neither of whom realized they carried this recessive gene. All you can do is wait, and try to help teach him the skills he'll need to navigate life as a blind person. Now imagine that a new therapy has been developed that could restore your child's vision, or save it before it went away. A miracle! Hallelujah! Except the treatment is controversial: It uses embryonic stem cells, the genetic material previously forbidden to be used in any government-funded projects.
Now the FDA has approved the stem cell treatment, which uses cells harvested from discarded embryos created during the IVF process. Not surprisingly, despite the U.S. government's reversal of the stem cell policy, many remain opposed to the use of embryonic stem cells, imagining a future in which egg and sperm come together not to create a child, but to furnish medical products to save others. I am staunchly pro-choice, but I do understand the concerns. Nobody wants to live in a world in which human beings are pressed into service as spare parts.
Still, I think some of these worries are a bit overstated, and they do not take into account the actual science involved.
According to doctors at the Stem Cell Program
at Children's Hospital, Boston, the IVF embryos used in stem cell therapies are those which would have been discarded anyway. These are not the fertilized eggs that could become "snowflake babies," implanted into non-related couples as a kind of prenatal adoption. These are what they call "early-arrested embryos," which have virtually no chance of implanting and developing into a baby. Using them to save a living child's eyesight seems to me no different than using a donated organ from a person who has died -- not trivial, but not evil, either.
Clinical trials are expected to begin early next year. Moms, what do you think?