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5/25/2005
SCIENCE SHORTS
CATEGORY: Science, Space

STEM CELLS

The House has passed a bill dramatically increasing the parameters of stem cell research:

The House yesterday passed a bill to ease restrictions on human-embryonic-stem-cell research, but it did not gain enough votes to overcome a promised presidential veto.

The bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican, and Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, calls for nearly 400,000 human embryos currently in cold storage to be used for experimentation.

First of all, let’s try to maintain a little perspective here. For that, I think we should listen to a scientist. Here are The Maryhunter’s thought’s from his brand-new blog, TMH Bacon Bits:

This topic has ignited passions on both sides. Some scientists and activists believe that embryonic stem cells hold tremendous promise for cures of everything from spinal cord injury and related paralysis to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer and Parkinson. Others believe that embryonic stem cell research is akin to murder, since in order to harvest human embryonic stem cells, one must destroy a living human embryo. The ES-cell proponents counter with the ethical argument that it is wrong, even immoral, to prevent potential medical breakthroughs by squelching federally-funded research on human embryos that would be discarded anyway — and they parade out senile dementia and paralysis victims to plead their case. The other side then parries by suggesting that, through this logic, we should also do research on death-row inmates, since they too are slated for destruction. Then they introduce us to children who were born as the result of the adoption and implantation of unwanted IVF-clinic embryos that were otherwise slated for destruction.

The media battle, however, is clearly being won by the embryonic stem cell forces, despite the fact that this is the more ethically problematic research route that to date has few if any successes to report. This contrasts dramatically with research on adult stem cells, which has resulted in numerous exciting medical breakthroughs. Sadly, popular debate tends toward the newer, flashier research that promises a new world of medicine lying just around the corner.

Embryonic stem cells could turn into a scientific bonanza. The problem as TMH points out in his article is that no one knows what the potential is. By dramatically expanding research, it should become clear just what advances are possible and which are pipe dreams.

President Bush plans to veto this legislation, a course of action I strongly disagree with. I can understand the pro-life stance and admire the thinking behind it. But government cannot legislate science. Government cannot say that “life begins at conception” because there’s not one shred of scientific proof that this is so. What government can and should do is protect life once it is viable outside the womb. This is why I strongly oppose abortion rights activists on a variety of issues including partial birth abortion and unlimited second trimester abortions.

Embryos slated for destruction can in no rational way be construed as life. I hope the President can be dissuaded from vetoing this important legislation.

STARTLING FACTS ABOUT THE PEOPLING OF AMERICA

A new study of DNA suggests North America was originally settled by just a few dozen people who crossed a land bridge from Asia during the last Ice Age.

About 14,000 years ago, humans crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia to North America, most experts agree. But just how many intrepid explorers were involved has not been known.

Previous DNA analyses of the New World’s founding looked at just one gene and assumed populations sizes have been constant over time. The new study looked at nine genomic regions to account for variations in single genes, and it assumed that sizes of founding populations change over time. The method favored actual genetic data over estimates used in previous calculations

As few as 70 humans made the trek from Siberia to North America.

The study suggests the peopling of America took place 12,000-14,000 years ago despite recent evidence that shows a much earlier date. Some archaeological sites have suggested that humans may have been here as early as 20,000-22,000 years ago. The evidence is controversial and given this genetic study, will have more problems in trying to sway scientific opinion. In addition, this fascinating theory regarding Europeans coming to America also took a hit. The geneticists found no evidence of Caucasian diaspora from Europe.

ANOTHER VOYAGER MILESTONE

From The New Editor:

After a storied, 28-year odyssey, NASA’s venerable Voyager 1 spacecraft appears to have reached the edge of the solar system, a turbulent zone of near-nothingness where the solar wind begins to give way to interstellar space in a cosmic cataclysm known as “termination shock,” scientists said yesterday.

“This is an historic step in Voyager’s race,” said California Institute of Technology physicist Edward C. Stone, the mission’s chief scientist since Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, were launched in the summer of 1977. “We have a totally new region of space to explore, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Studying this region of space may be in jeopardy because Congress is thinking of slashing the $4.2 million dollar appropriation that covers Voyager’s explorations.

Don’t worry though, we can always launch another space probe toward the outer reaches of the solar system. Of course, it will only take 30 years or so to reach the point that Voyager is now. And such a mission in today’s dollars would cost a couple of billion dollars. So, we can spend $4.2 million today or a couple of billion tomorrow.

Your government at work.

BLACK HOLES FINALLY GIVING UP SECRETS

Advances in x-ray astronomy are resolving some enduring mysteries about black holes, scientists say. Black holes are places in space where the force of gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape.

In recent years scientists have learned to find black holes by sweeping the skies with space-based telescopes equipped with x-ray “vision.” X-rays are a high-energy form of light that is invisible to the human eye.

“As [matter] falls down into the black hole, it will heat up, and it gets so hot it emits x-rays,” explained Edward Morgan, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

Morgan is an instrument scientist for NASA’s Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer satellite. Launched in 1995, the satellite allows scientists to study black holes and other objects such as neutron stars.

There are two kinds of black holes. Your garden variety black hole results when a sun approximately 10 times as massive as our own star, approaches the end of its life. As it runs out of hydrogen to burn, it first starts to expand, gradually reaching a size perhaps three times larger than it was during its lifetime. Then, as it runs out of fuel made up of other elements in the periodic table it starts to contract rapidly until its weight becomes so massive that it actually collapses in on itself and disappears from normal space. It’s size is very small - smaller than the earth. But any celestial body unlucky enough to be caught in its gravity well ends up as food for this gravitational monster. As it “eats,” it gives off massive amounts of x-rays that are visible to the space-based x-ray telescopes that we’ve launched in the last decade.

The second type of black hole lies at the center of galaxies and is called a “supermassive black hole.” These beasts consume massive amounts of stellar debris and an interesting correlation has been found between the growth of these monsters and the growth of their home galaxy.

SOME THOUGHTS ON SCIENTIFIC DEBATE

The Commissar has some thoughts on “The Elite Control of Scientific Dialog” and how some ideas have a hard time making it into the mainstream of scientific thought. He takes the serendipitous case of William Alvarez, the physicist who first came up with the theory that dinosaurs may have been wiped out by an asteroid:

In 1980, a physicist named Walter Alvarez observed a surprising layer of iridium laid down about 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs went extinct. From that, he hypothesized that a huge asteroid had collided with the earth, triggering a global catastrophe and causing the mass extinction. The scientific community, including paleontologists and geologists, was very dubious. Here was a physicist intruding on THEIR turf! …

What happened? Did Alvarez take his ideas to the Kansas Board of Education? Did he wage a PR campaign? Did he sponsor state referenda to push his point of view? Did he demand that high school geology textbooks carry stickers highlighting his views? Did he gnash his teeth publicly and demand to “teach the controversy?”

No. He, and other scientists, both those who agreed with him and those who vehemently disagreed, examined the facts, ran more tests, looked again at old data, etc. They literally dug into the earth, all over the globe, down to the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary (the so-called K-T layer) to determine how much iridium was there.

The results, as they say, are history. The impact theory for the dinosaur extinction is generally accepted as true.

Parallels with the evolutionists vs. “Intelligent” Design wingnuts? Read the whole thing.

TOP 10 WAYS TO DESTROY THE EARTH

Finally, how about “The Top 10 Ways to Destroy the Earth.” I’ m especially intrigued by #7:

You will need: a light bulb

Method: This is a fun one. Contemporary scientific theories tell us that what we may see as vacuum is only vacuum on average, and actually thriving with vast amounts of particles and antiparticles constantly appearing and then annihilating each other. It also suggests that the volume of space enclosed by a light bulb contains enough vacuum energy to boil every ocean in the world. Therefore, vacuum energy could prove to be the most abundant energy source of any kind. Which is where you come in. All you need to do is figure out how to extract this energy and harness it in some kind of power plant - this can easily be done without arousing too much suspicion - then surreptitiously allow the reaction to run out of control. The resulting release of energy would easily be enough to annihilate all of planet Earth and probably the Sun too.

Slightly possible.

Please don’t try this at home.

By: Rick Moran at 5:34 pm
13 Responses to “SCIENCE SHORTS”
  1. 1
    David Schantz Said:
    6:52 pm 

    Something about Stem Cell Research bothers me. I don’t know maybe it’s my age, religious background or the fact that I’m adopted. Every time I read about this issue or genetically modified food I think of something an old friend said, “The Bible says we should praise God, not play God.”

  2. 2
    NIF Trackbacked With:
    7:26 pm 

    Sultan of the Black Forest
    Today’s dose of NIF - News, Interesting & Funny … It’s Wictory Wednesday … and Riley got her first tooth yesterday!

  3. 3
    The MaryHunter Said:
    4:28 am 

    This is a great post, a great distillation of cool science. Thankya big big! :)

    Regarding stem cells and human embryos: you write “Embryos slated for destruction can in no rational way be construed as life. ” Well I say that there is a rational way: By definition, the union of egg and sperm creates a new human genome that has never existed before in the human gene pool. The genetic code is locked and loaded, and in fact starts BOOM right off making a new person: the cells start dividing, different tissues grow and differentiate (even at just a few hours post fertilization). This, all well before the embryo has even embedded into the uterus wall and become, as abortion proponents love to call it, ‘a parasite’.

    If that’s not life, then I don’t know what is. We even give viruses the dignity of defining them as a “life form” and they are utterly dependent on a host cell.

    And… though it sounds like hyperbole, I believe that the more you try to parse ‘when life begins’ by some value judgment or arbitrary timepoint/biologic marker, the easier it will be to redefine end-of-life issues on the basis of value judgments, and thereby cheapen the meaning of life altogether. To wit, Life becomes something less than a continuum and more like a normal or Gaussian distribution, an inverted bell curve with “time” on the bottom axis, and “quality/value of life ” on the vertical axis. Then, who knows: Terri Schiavos be ware, and death row inmates could become fair game. Way oversimplification, I’ll admit, but we were talking slippery slope problems with Terri Schiavo as well.

  4. 4
    Rick Moran Said:
    4:42 am 

    MMMMM…

    Well, the statement I made about embryos and life referred to my definition of viable life, i.e. for purposes of defining within the law and for which government is responsible.

    Government cannot say that life begins at conception. This is opinion, not science. The processes that lead to life may begin then but, using your virus analogy, how attatched are we to the Poliomyelitis virus?

    Not fair to compare a human embryo with a virus? Perhaps. The point is, for purposes of law, government must define when life begins not acording to religious or even moral tenets but according to the “best evidence” available.

    BTW, my definition of life viable outside of the womb includes people like Terri Schiavo and encompasses most people that the euthanizers want to throw in the trash. Quality of life has nothing to do with it. Viable life is viable life, period.

  5. 5
    Sue Dohnim Said:
    8:28 am 

    Good post all around, except for gratuitous I.D. bashing.

    About embryonic stem cell research:

    - There are currently no laws that forbid embryonic stem cell research.

    - The “restrictions” that everyone talks about are simply criteria for receiving federal funding for research. In other words, having taxpayers foot the bill for such activity.

    - There are already 78 stem-cell lines that can be used in federally funded embryonic stem cell research. These are available without all of the same strings attached to harvesting fresh embryos for new stem cell lines.

    - Adult stem cells are producing results where embryonic stem cells are not, so much so that there is more privately-funded research going on in this area than in embryonic stem cells. Private companies only fund research when they see hope of returns on investment.

    So why is there all of this screaming to grab more embryos? What can be done with these stem cells that can’t be done with the others mentioned above? And if it holds so much promise, why isn’t private industry jumping into it with both feet instead of panhandling from the government?

  6. 6
    Rick Moran Said:
    8:32 am 

    First rule of government spending, Sue: Why pay for something when you can get the government to pony up? That said, you make a good point that The Maryhunter could probably answer better than I.

    It’s my understanding that some of the stem cell lines approved for research have been “corrupted” whatever the heck that means. This is one of those things that I take my cue from people who know a hell of a lot more than I. And the people involved in the research say they need it.

    Perhaps TMH when he stops by to look at my response to him will take a stab at answering your question.

  7. 7
    The MaryHunter Said:
    11:46 am 

    Happy to, Rick!

    Sue in essence reiterates some of the points from my original post and brings up a very good point and question about funding. Yes, the restrictions are only for federally funded research. Folks researching at private research institutes with no NIH or NSF funds can go right along and fiddle, as can industry (within the law, i.e., no cloning humans).

    Sue, I can’t answer your thesis regarding private industry asking for gov’t funding directly; however rest assured that industry is simply marching along with ES cell research, though quietly (as is their wont, for intellectual property reasons).

    However this begs the more fundamental question: why the devil is human embryonic stem cell research all the rage, as compared to the more-proven adult stem cell research?

    To help answer, please allow me to bring into this discussion Penelope, a new writer (and scientist by training) at my blog, who just posted the companion piece to my original post that Rick linked. In it she addresses the glamour factor of human embryonic stem cell research that reigns, despite the difficult ethics (for many) and the dubious promise (for real) that this technology holds.

    Re Rick’s question re “contamination” of ES lines: what’s meant here is that in order to grow ES cells in culture you usually need to grow them with “feeder cells” which help provide growth factors and other goodies they need. Traditionally the feeder cells have been mouse-derived cells, which could render the ES cells useless for any clinical application. Mostly, all the however-many-there-are cell lines have such feeder cells so they could be used for research only in a limited way. However, I think that there are ways now to culture ES cells in a growth medium without feeder cells… I need to check on that.

    (N.B.: Rick, now I’m going to have to wait awhile to get back to your original comment - life and work have interceded for the moment. In short: I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree…)

  8. 8
    Rick Moran Said:
    11:51 am 

    TMH:

    As always…ships passing in the night.

    And thanks for bailing me out on Sue’s question. Maybe if I’m going to post science stuff I should know what the heck I’m talking about first!

  9. 9
    The MaryHunter Said:
    1:47 pm 

    No no no. You just keep ahead posting science stuff, Rick, ya done good. This especially is a fast-moving, exciting, and ethically challenging biomedical research field. I’m barely keeping up with it.

    Re contamination, corruption, watevah (as Raven would say): if that’s also what you meant, indeed you had a good point (not to help your argument any) in the fact that the current collection of ES lines is not really usable for clinical research. This goes right in keeping with the pro-ES cell folk’s desire to get that ES-cell research legislation passed. My big argument, and Penelope’s, is that all this focus is on a technology that, like the Silver Bullet for cancer, is neither proven nor likely to pan out in the way everyone hopes it will… and here we have adult stem cells a plenty that are already curing people in clinics.

    Take that, John “I’ll Say Anything to Get Elected” Edwards, for your numbskull line in Election 2004 that (paraphrasing) “If John Kerry and I are elected, the lame will walk again” through ES cell research. Not necessary; those same-patient nose cells (olfactory ensheathing cells) I referred to in my post are doing it already with little or no risk of tissue rejection.

  10. 10
    Rick Moran Said:
    2:04 pm 

    Fascinating stuff…

    I tried to point that out when I talked about what kinds of research would prove promising and which would be dead ends. If what you’re saying is true - that the exact same results can be obtained by adult stem cell research - then that could be a horse of a different color.

  11. 11
    Sue Dohnim Said:
    9:07 am 

    Thanks for the great feedback, Rick and TheMaryHunter (and/or Penelope… the Internets can be confusing!)

    I was doing some online research of my own about the subject when I ran across something that I had not thought about before.

    Because there is another set of DNA besides the potential patient’s involved in a stem cell line, the donor stem cells must be tissue-matched against the recipient, just like in transplant procedures.

    So the embryonic stem cell therapies being touted to the public today are pipedreams, for the most part. The truly promising goal would be to take cells from the patient, somehow make them into embryo-like stem cells (i.e. pluripotent) and treat the patient with those cells. That way there would be no need for tissue-matching or fear of rejection; the cells would for all intents and purposes be the patient’s own cells.

    Of course, the sticky wicket is genetic disease. If you’ve got an organ problem that’s caused by your DNA (possibly juvenile diabetes, for instance), then the type of therapy I mentioned above doesn’t work. Then it’s necessary to do what basically amounts to a cellular transplant, with all of the requisite tissue-matching and anti-rejection drugs.

  12. 12
    Sue Dohnim Said:
    7:29 pm 

    TheMaryHunter: I’m not an expert either, but as far as I can tell, the bill you linked to is still in committee:

    Status: Read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

    Thanks once again for all of the helpful information.

  13. 13
    swissreplica0 Trackbacked With:
    6:50 am 

    very best idea make rules time!

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