A discussion on the philosophy of research in stem cells is somewhat similar to one on brain and behaviour, where science encounters moral authorities. In many quarters religion and politics, rather than medicine or science, is the realm where the brain should reside. A theory for the brain is taken as an alteration of the mind, an issue with moral and philosophical implications. Ideas and facts as simple as the observations that exercise increases neurogenesis, a comfortable environment increases blood vessels and improves the blood brain barrier and that during development neurogenesis is much easier to provoke, may be taken as dangerous.
This essay reflects in part a symposium I sat at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in Toronto in 2010, where Laurie Zoloth Core and Fred Gage took part. Since then, of course, the discussion has mostly settled, and most countries passed legislation allowing research in embryonic stem cells within well-defined territories. But still there are passionate views nd atitudes, often dramatic, which may be explained by fear that research in stem cells makes the future even more dangerous than it already looks. It looks frankly terrible with the possibility of human cloning just around the corner. Another topic is that one should not use the bodies of others, especially when the market place and politics are as corrupt as we can see, daily.
Those innately against research in stem cells tend to think that nature is fixed and sacred, as is the DNA; many are creationists who believe that suffering and finitude are part of humanity, that we should accept things as they are. The concept that some human diseases are degenerative probably belong in this section of the discussion, as degeneration is not a pathophysiological mechanism of cell death. The stubborn use of degenerative for fast evolving neuronal death as takes place during amyotrophic lateral sclerosis may originate in this train of thought.
Frequently these religious questions cloud the discussion to the point that one may argue that the central question is not the moral of the embryo, which may be settled with statutory limitations. In fact, one reason for controversy may be the youth of this discussion. Only in the 1970s in human history did the embryo appear in imaging exams and literally outside the body of a woman, in fertility studies. This was a total first time in philosophy or history, except for an isolated Hindu text. Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, knows that there may be intense battle for the property of knowledge. The Catholic church under John Paul II attempted strongly to exercise what they felt was their right in the matter of research in stem cells, which they appear to equate with creation, a divine power. The Korean fraud did not help this matter, obviously.
One definition of good science is that it emerges out of a free society, where people have equal access to training, fair funding, with a decent system for acquisition and distribution of knowledge. Obviously, in good science there are never any lies. The same should apply to the moral authorities who try to influence science. But people in moral high grounds, religious or judiciary, have pedigrees, which lead their attitudes and thought, and may be destroyed by one lie. The main problem for them is that science is subversive. As it discovers new territory it lives outside the law. The ethics of embryos becomes an issue of faith. But justice precedes freedom, and so the life of scientists advances.
A more detailed discussion on the matters of degenerative diseases and hematopoietc stem cells may be encountered in my ebook Sklera and chimera, at amazon.com.
Dr Paulo Bittencourt

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