Friday, February 03, 2006

Bush's attack on medical research

George W Bush openly attacked medical research during his State Of The Union address. We all heard it. Many of us laughed, thinking the fool had just gone over the deep end and we wrote off his plea as the lunatic ranting of a man who has clearly lost touch with reality.

"Tonight, I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids..."
Unfortunately, it wasn't as funny as it seemed to most of us, and it's a pretty sure bet that Bush's statement was the handiwork of Leon R. Kass, a member and recent past chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics. Kass is dead set against cloning for any purpose. He is also a vitriolic opponent of most other biomedical avenues of research, including those which may extend human life or relieve suffering. Although an MD with a Ph.D in biochemistry, Kass does not do research and does not see patients. He has been wrong time and again on reproductive science. For example, in his 1970s opposition to in vitro-fertilization he insisted babies would be born with horrific birth defects. He complained in his book: Toward a More Natural Science about "the dissection of cadavers". In fact, his irrational philosophy, his published extreme views and a thoroughly bloodied reputation in the medical research world probably prevented him from being nominated as Surgeon-General, an appointment which would have required Senate confirmation. His strongest credential for inclusion into the Bush administration is his membership in the right-wing, neo-con, Bush policy shop, The American Enterprise Institute. But, Kass has the ear of the President and his cultural conservatism, disguised as medical philosophy and ethics, is the language Bush likes to hear.

Medical researchers are horrified by Bush's request to ban cloning. While it may sound vaguely odd to produce a human-animal clone, the type of research being done is aimed at saving human life, advancing organ transplant knowledge and producing cures or controls for diseases which presently elude effective treatment. Human DNA has been inserted into pigs, sheep and other animals and have produced a variety of useful medical byproducts. Monoclonal antibodies, that can neutralize various infections, tumors, and toxins in human patients are the direct result of human-animal cloning. A 2002 article in the Hoover Institution's Policy Review reports:

Some monoclonal-antibody drugs are already on the market, such as Daclizumab, which prevents acute rejection of transplanted kidneys. Dozens more are in human clinical trials...
The human-animal clone, known as a chimera, has the potential to solve a multitude of problems facing medical researchers.

Perhaps the most ambitious efforts to make use of chimeras come from Irving Weissman, director of Stanford University's Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. Weissman helped make the first mouse with a nearly complete human immune system -- an animal that has proved invaluable for tests of new drugs against the AIDS virus, which does not infect conventional mice.

More recently his team injected human neural stem cells into mouse fetuses, creating mice whose brains are about 1 percent human. By dissecting the mice at various stages, the researchers were able to see how the added brain cells moved about as they multiplied and made connections with mouse cells.

Already, he said, they have learned things they "never would have learned had there been a bioethical ban."

Any ban, as requested by Bush, would serve only to halt the current medical inquiry and force researchers to resort to random chance and guessing in an effort to find the solution for medical mysteries.

[Weissman] wants to add human brain stem cells that have the defects that cause Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease and other brain ailments -- and study how those cells make connections.

Scientists suspect that these diseases, though they manifest themselves in adulthood, begin when something goes wrong early in development. If those errors can be found, researchers would have a much better chance of designing useful drugs, Weissman said. And those drugs could be tested in the chimeras in ways not possible in patients.

While true medical ethicists struggle with where the line should be drawn, Bush's request was another one of his classic "scare" lines; long on fear and short on substance. Medical researchers have no intention of developing a hybrid half-human as a purely reproductive experiment. Research is centered on therapeutic cloning. Given Bush's 2005 State Of The Union address in which he declared that the United States would continue to lead the world in medical research, his current request to ban therapeutic cloning is a contradiction which will put the US behind countries like China, Japan, Britain and others who allow therapeutic cloning.

Bush's request to Congress was formed out of his personal religious beliefs and the advice of a moralizing so-called ethicist whose bizarre past predictions of disaster regarding reproductive medical advances have been thoroughly destroyed. Bush is, once again, attempting to inject an extreme religious belief into both the US political structure and the scientific community.

Congress should do one thing with Bush's request: ignore it.

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