CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A young Illinois man shattered his spine in a motocross bicycle crash. He seemed doomed to life in a wheelchair. But research doctors at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital injected him with embryonic stem cells in hope of growing healthy, new, replacement spinal cord tissue. He began showing improvement.
However, as the Chicago Tribune reported, the victim -- and others sharing his plight -- sank into limbo when Geron Corp. abruptly halted the stem cell research project. The pharmaceutical firm apparently decided it can earn bigger profits from cancer drugs, and also can avoid controversy associated with embryonic stem cells.
This is tragic for the patients whose hope for cures were undercut. It's also a setback for medical science, because stem cells offer bright opportunity to defeat several horrible ailments.
Stem cells are rudimentary units that haven't yet developed into muscle, hair, nerve, skin, bone or other tissue. They have an ability to become any tissue they're inserted into. Researchers may use them to regenerate brain tissue in Alzheimer's sufferers, pancreas tissue in diabetics, heart tissue in cardiac victims, spinal cords in paraplegics, etc.
The best source of stem cells is surplus human eggs left frozen in fertility clinics. But fundamentalist uproar embroils them. Some far-right theologians say a soul is created the moment an egg is fertilized -- so it's akin to murder to destroy the frozen eggs to extract their stem cells.
This storm caused former President George W. Bush to ban federally funded research using new fertilized eggs. President Obama reversed the Bush ban -- but an impediment to such research obviously remains.
We think the protest against stem cell research is childish. It's goofy to argue about microscopic frozen souls -- especially ones scheduled to be discarded anyway. The dispute lets shallow ideology hinder humane efforts to help suffering people. Curing diseases and enabling the paralyzed to walk again is the most "pro-life" work we can imagine.
If Geron Corp. won't renew the Chicago research, some other medical organization should do so. We hope West Virginia's members of Congress prod federal health bureaucrats to see if U.S. research funds can revive the humanitarian project.