Why the extreme religious right are turning against iPS cells

There was a time, not so long ago, when the religious right hailed the discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

Headlines blared from the extreme right on the Internet such as, “Embryonic stem cells obsolete”.

Even Dr. Oz told Oprah and Michael J. Fox the same kind of thing, saying, “The stem cell debate is dead”.

You see opponents of embryonic stem cells (ES cells) figured that the appearance of iPS cells, made from skin rather than blastocysts leftover from IVF, on the scene could be used as a propaganda weapon against ES cell research and its funding.

But they lost the Sherley v. Sebelius case so now federal funding of ES cell research is pretty much as close to permanently legal in the US as possible, which is to say not very permanent, but at least relatively stable.

Interestingly, the extreme religious right now have lost their taste for iPS cells.

We are seeing an increasing number of negative stories about iPS cells sourced to religious extremists in the last few years. One of the most nonsensical was a recent piece (please if possible do not give in to temptation and click that link to give that nonsense web traffic) that claimed that iPS cells were actually embryos and that Nobel Laureate John Gurdon said as much. Believe me that article is one of the worst I have ever read on stem cells.

A recent collaborative book by NeoStem CEO Robin Smith and the Vatican also didn’t exactly embrace iPS cells, which were also somewhat diss’d at the recent Vatican stem cell meeting.

What was once a replacement for ES cells has now become a bad thing itself according to these folks.

Why?

There is a jumble of possible reasons.

One is that iPS cells are viewed by the right wing as unnatural and somehow just not right. Maybe even evil. It is nonsense of course, but this view is growing.

A second reason seems to be a growing propaganda campaign to equate iPS cells with embryos, a notion mentioned in that earlier article mentioned above. These folks are mistakenly equating potentiality with equality. A logical extension of their nonsense is that ANY cell is an embryo since we can make iPS cells from pretty much any cell. Thus, in their warped way of thinking, would any cell be an embryo?

Cellular rights, personhood, and other such gobbledygook take rights away from real, living, breathing people. I believe that laws based on such notions are unconstitutional.

Another factor is that iPS cells hypothetically might be used to clone people in the future, a possibility I discuss in my forthcoming book due out in August.

We still do not know whether this will actually work and honestly I am concerned about it, but the religious right are clearly very spooked at the idea.

I’m no fan of reproductive cloning and unlike many of my colleagues I do believe that it is going to become a reality in the coming decade. The first cloning of humans could even be based on iPS cell technology, but this is no reason to turn against iPS cells in a general sense.

More broadly, misguided people can turn even a wonderful thing into something bad if they try hard enough.

It will be interesting even if disturbing to see how far the right wing will go in this new trend of theirs against iPS cells. In the end their narrow minded viewpoint, if translated into laws and regulations based on misinformation, may lead to fewer and fewer people being helped by stem cells in the future. I think that is what is unethical.

Adult stem cells are wonderful, but they are not a panacea and we need embryonic stem cells and iPS cells too to help the most people.

5 thoughts on “Why the extreme religious right are turning against iPS cells


  1. Paul, Once again you are leading the discussion of a controversial stem cell issue, bravo! From your post here and the preview of your book you are providing, it seems you think that reproductive cloning with iPS cells is a future possibility and that it concerns you. I haven’t thought about the science behind this unfortunate scenario, but if we assume you are correct, then isn’t there at least some similarity between iPS cells and embryos? Yet when the same concerns about the use of iPS cells in reproductive cloning are expressed by the religious organization here which you deem extreme right, you equate their comparisons between iPS cells and embryos as nonsense. You say that you are “concerned” about reproductive cloning with iPS but that the religious right is “very clearly spooked” about it. Are you not spooked about this too? I’m not sure if invalidating the concern of these groups, especially if you share the exact same concern (reproductive cloning with iPS), is the best way to prevent a sea change in public opinion against iPS cells that might hamper enthusiasm for their clinical therapeutic applications.


    • Chris,
      Thanks for the comment and great ideas/ probing questions.

      I am indeed concerned about human reproductive cloning whether it is done at some future date via exploiting SCNT, iPS cells or ES cells, or some other as yet unknown technology, but that risk, in my opinion, should not give the technology itself a black eye. We should also keep in mind that cellular reprogramming and iPS cell technology have very big potential to help millions of sick people.

      Scientific advances often pose risks of bad guys (ab)using the new technology for ethically questionable or even outright evil purposes. Look at nuclear physics, which led to nuclear weapons and the double-edged sword of nuclear energy technology. Virology has made tremendous advances and saved countless lives, but viral vectors could be used by terrorists as weapons too.

      As to whether iPS cells have similarity to actual embryos, I don’t think so. Of course embryos are cells and iPS cells are cells, and iPS cells bear a resemblance to the cells of the inner cell mass of the blastocyst embryo.

      However, iPS cells are not the same as embryos by any means.

      It worries me when some folks try to equate cells with people. A good, but frightening example of this is the Personhood proponents. In my view, when we attribute human qualities to cells, we devalue actual living, breathing people.

      Still overall I think you have some good points and I can see how it would appear that I am sort of on both sides of this one, but in part I blog about certain topics to stir up discussion and don’t claim to be right about everything! That’s part of the fun and benefit of blogging. Too often in academia especially scientists don’t really talk about the important issues because they are I guess afraid of saying the wrong thing, but then key topics like hypothetical future iPS cell-based human cloning never get openly discussed.


  2. Paul, perhaps another reason for the distancing of some conservatives, at least the ones who are interested in the science, is the realization that even researchers that specialize in iPSC research depend on ES cells in order to have a standard against which to compare their reprogrammed cells from one passage to the next. That would cause them some qualms.


    • I think you have a good point, John. Ironically, those of us saying that we need ES cells as a standard to which to compare iPS cells may have inadvertently linked the two in the conservatives’ minds leading to qualms about iPS cells too.

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