Stem-Cell Research 101

Tempest in a Test Tube

While President Bush mulls federal funding for stem-cell research, Congress prepares to move. At least 200 members of the House, including the Republican speaker Dennis Hastert, are set to support using tax dollars for the study of tissue from embryos, said to hold promise for the treatment of ailments like Parkinson’s disease and spinal-cord injuries. Bush’s shilly-shallying makes him look silly, relegating the White House to the sidelines on one of the most important questions since he took office.

There was no more embarrassing scene than that of Bush playing the attentive, overstarched schoolboy last month while the doddering Pope lectured against the research. We offer another primer.

Stem Cells: Highly mutable cells obtained from aborted fetuses or days-old embryos.

Political Stakes: Bush’s right-wing support, now all the more important because GOP moderates are jumping ship to support the research.

Current Rules: Only embryos set to be trashed by fertility and abortion clinics can be used. The cells must be derived by privately funded scientists, who can then pass them on to federally funded colleagues.

Key Question: When does life begin?

Pro: Actor and quadriplegic Christopher Reeve. “You don’t really have an ethical problem because you are actually saving lives by using cells that are going to the garbage,” Reeve told CNN. “I just don’t see how that’s immoral or unethical. I really don’t.”

Con: Hardcore pro-lifers. The Pope warned of “a tragic coarsening of consciences” that starts with abortion and goes on to an “acquiescence in… related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide, and, most recently, proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos, destined to destruction in the process… A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death.”

In the Middle: George W. Bush, who told the nation: “It’s the need to balance value and respect for life with the promise of science and the hope of saving life.”

Who Owns the Science: Johns Hopkins holds patents on advanced techniques for researching fetal germ cells; likewise the University of Wisconsin Research Foundation, an affiliate of the University of Wisconsin, holds patents on techniques with embryonic stem cells. The Geron Corporation, of Menlo Park, California, has licenses from both Hopkins and WARF. Two Hopkins medical school doctors — John D. Gearhart and Michael Joseph Shamblott — own an undisclosed amount of stock in Geron.

Profit Margins: Frost and Sullivan, a major consulting firm, reports “the worldwide market for cell lines and tissue cultures brought in nearly $428 million in corporate revenues in 1996.” It further predicts that between now and 2003, the market will grow at an average annual rate of 13.5 percent. By next year, it will be worth nearly $1 billion. Profits from patents and products that come from tissue research are not included.

Stem-Cell Czar: The National Institutes of Health, the agency that sponsors $19 million in fetal-cell research and oversees current rules.

If Not Here, Where? If the U.S. doesn’t perform the research, other countries will take over. Australia currently works on stem cells from Singapore. Great Britain is gung ho. France, Germany, Japan, and Canada remain undecided.

Harvesting the Cells: Federal law prohibits the sale of fetal tissue, but clinics can charge reasonable fees for gathering and ferrying it to researchers. The Kansas City Star reports that one donation company, Anatomic Gift Foundation, phased out its fetal-tissue program last year to quell bad publicity from anti-abortion groups. “It’s put an enormous damper on research,” the company’s attorney told the paper.

Chandra Levy Case Goes Cold

Conspiracy of Dunces

Washington police pretty much gave up on the Chandra Levy case over the weekend. In announcing that the search would be scaled back, Chief Charles Ramsey said solving the riddle of the former intern’s disappearance is at best a 50-50 proposition. The matter of Levy’s disappearance has never been declared a criminal investigation, and the cops have consistently squelched speculation about California congressman Gary Condit, who admitted having an affair with the missing woman and has been interviewed repeatedly by law enforcement.

Meanwhile, the case has begun to achieve mythic status among conspiracy buffs, who among other kooky things believe that:

  • Chandra is buried in a distant marsh;
  • She’s now a spy and was spotted last week at Mossad HQ in Jerusalem;
  • She was killed in an s/m scene;
  • She was taken away on a motorcycle by a big black homosexual wearing black leather (evidence: She didn’t take her purse, which meant she was going out on a bike);
  • D.C. cops won’t touch the case for fear of revealing their participation in a gigantic ongoing “fairy shaking” operation, in which they are blackmailing players in the city’s sex underground, including numerous officials and members of Congress;
  • The hands of D.C. police are tied by congresspeople who fear further exposure of their colleagues. Evidence of this is contained in a close reading of an exchange between Meet the Press‘s Tim Russert and Senate Democratic majority leader Tom Daschle two weeks ago:
    • RUSSERT: But [Condit] is vulnerable to blackmail in his current situation.
    • DASCHLE: Well, he may be, but there are probably others that are subject to blackmail as well. I think the real issue is, How do you find some solution to this tragedy? And the best way to do that is to keep the focus on where it should be, and that is Chandra Levy.

What Black Bloc Believes

The Right to Fight

As the combined federal and local police forces of Washington get ready for what’s expected to be a tumultuous anti-globalist protest at the World Bank and IMF meeting this fall, they’ll be focusing on a little-understood corps of anarchists called the Black Bloc.

Somewhere between the Weather Bureau and the Baader-Meinhof gang stands the Black Bloc, recalling the Wobblies with a dash of ACT UP. Last week, member Mary Black (a pseudonym) sent a letter to the news service Alternet, telling a little about the group, which she says has no platform and largely comprises young white people who hold day jobs with nonprofits. “We believe that destroying the property of oppressive and exploitative corporations like the Gap is an acceptable and useful protest tactic,” she wrote. “We believe that we have the right to defend ourselves when we are in physical danger from tear gas, batons, armored personnel carriers and other law enforcement technology…

“Most of us believe that if cops are in the way of where we want to go or what we want to do, we have a right to directly confront them. Some of us extend this idea to include the acceptability of physically attacking cops. I have to emphasize that this is controversial even within the Black Bloc, but also explain that many of us believe in armed revolution, and within that context, attacking the cops doesn’t seem out of place. I will continue to participate in protest in this way, and anyone who cares to is welcome to join me. Bricks are easy to find and targets are as close as your local McDonald’s.”

Note: With 280 protesters arrested and 230 injured, 18 still missing, and one dead in rioting at the G-8 summit last month, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi defended his police officers before parliament. “Let nobody compare me to General Pinochet,” he declared, amid jeers.

Additional reporting: Sandra Bisin and Ariston-Lizabeth Anderson

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