In a busy news cycle, last week's Washington Post headline may have escaped notice: "Stem cell pioneer Geron exiting such research, laying off staff, to focus on cancer drug tests." The research Geron pioneered concerned embryonic stem cells: the great hope for defeating dozens of diseases, from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's.
Although the mainstream news outlets didn't pay much attention, the announcement did send shock waves through what we might call the embryonic-brave-new-world community, not to mention the make-billions-from-miracle-therapies community.
Financial papers took notice as much as the scientific ones, especially after Geron shares declined 17.3 percent in the first hours: "Geron, the pioneering stem cell therapy company, has dealt a powerful blow to one of the most hyped areas of medicinal research by withdrawing entirely from the field" (Financial Times of London). The implications for other labs and their funding are clear: "Just why would I want to invest in a space where one of the most promising companies just called it quits?" (Ron Leuty, San Francisco Business Times). And the San Jose Mercury News noticed "a cloud over the commercial viability of stem cell treatments."
Exactly. According to The Washington Post article, "commercial viability" is the sticking point. Geron's efforts to attract new business partners has been increasingly frustrated by bothersome demands for results. Except for a South Korean cloning breakthrough that wasn't, there haven't been any. All the real advances in stem cell research have been in adult stem cells, not embryonic. In spite of extravagant claims and promises, and billions of dollars earmarked for research, Geron is the first to fold its tent, like the Arab in Longfellow's poem, and "silently steal away."
Several years ago, atheist apologist Sam Harris got himself in a dither over ethical opposition to the practice of creating human embryos in order to experiment on them:
"If there were a line in the book of Genesis that read, 'The soul enters the womb on the hundredth day (you idiots),' we wouldn't have lost a step on stem-cell research, and there would not be a Christian or Jew anywhere who would worry about souls in Petri dishes suffering the torments of the damned. The beliefs currently rattling around in the heads of human beings are some of the most potent forces on earth; some of the craziest and most divisive of these are 'religious,' and so-dubbed they are treated with absurd deference, even in the halls of science; this is a very bad combination. …"
I can't help wondering if Sam Harris has moderated his views, or if the beliefs rattling around in his own head refuse to moderate, even in the absence (OK: so far) of any firm evidence for his hope.
It's nice to be vindicated, and tempting to gloat, but we're not quite in the clear. If-it could happen-embryonic stem cell research finally opens up a glittering horizon in viable therapies, will we still insist on our view of when life begins? Or fudge a little?
Geron had to give up the game because the results weren't there; hence the money wasn't there. If we were slammed against a wall equally solid-such as saying "no" to a therapy that could well save our lives-would our ethical concerns seem as real? Humans will never stop trying to be God-all the more reason for believers to strive for godliness.