04.16.09

The Right Embraces Al Gore

The former vice president is shaking up abortion politics by funding stem cell research that doesn't involve embryos. That's creating some strange new bedfellows.

PLUS: Neurobiologist Maureen L. Condic fact-checks 11 stem cell arguments and asks, does research really need human embryos?

The letter began: “As a scientist, I must say that you are an idiot.”

Granted, this is not a sentiment unique to a single scientist. My mailbox runneth over. But this fellow’s critique requires a response in light of recent events.

Scientifically speaking, toldja so.

Republicans, who have staked out pro-life territory as their own, are in the curious position of having to applaud the king of global warming. Talk about inconvenient truths.

The dear fellow was referring to a syndicated column I wrote back in March in which I praised the virtues of induced pluripotent adult stem cells. (iPS to you.) Which, by the way, I had written with much guidance from other scientists who hail, for example, from such barren intellectual lands as Stanford University. I didn’t make it up, in other words.

But no matter. Despite mounting evidence that iPS cells show great promise and can mimic the qualities that have made embryonic stem cells so appealing, scientists disagree on which method is preferable. I would be lying if I said that these disagreements do not include some monetary considerations, but never mind that for now.

What brings me back so soon to these treacherous seas (I promise not to pursue this metaphor despite the irresistible tug of recent pirate tales) can be summed up in two words: Al Gore.

Yes, the global-warming, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Al Gore. That one. The man who might have been president, were it not for a few hanging chads, has just announced that he will participate in a $20 million biotech venture to pursue induced pluripotent stem-cell technology. That strange sound you hear is the collective gasp of pro-life conservatives who would rather un-impeach Bill Clinton than embrace “Algorithm,” as he’s affectionately known in the right reaches of the politisphere.

“I just think it’s a very important breakthrough that is filled with promise and hope,” said Gore, a partner in the venture-capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which is backing the research.

Indeed it is. And life is rich in new alliances, as well as irony. Recently, the Democratic Party attracted one of the principal funders of California’s Proposition 8 opposing gay marriage. Now Republicans, who have staked out pro-life territory as their own, are in the curious position of having to applaud the king of global warming. Talk about inconvenient truths.

“Dear, dear,” said the bedfellow to the stranger.

In an email to friends spreading news of Gore’s sudden brilliance, an advocate of adult stem-cell research wrote in the subject line: “OK, now I have to rethink the whole stem-cell thing.”

If Al Gore says it’s right, in other words, might we be wrong?

Then again, sometimes it takes an unexpected third party to shine a light on what is true so that others might see. When pro-lifers push iPS cells, only pro-lifers can hear. When a pro-choice politician with scientific credibility among his tribe suddenly finds solidarity with the enemy camp, different ears perk up. It’s as if Newt Gingrich suddenly endorsed increasing capital-gains taxes. Or if Sarah Palin issued a moratorium on wolf hunting.

Obviously, Gore isn’t intending to lose money on this proposition. He clearly sees the enormous potential, not just for healing and research, but for the financial gains that could result when the right thing collides with the true thing.

That is, when science and ethics can’t keep their hands off each other. As now.

Gore’s group will fund a partnership between iZumi Bio, of Mountain View, California, and Kyoto University’s Shinya Yamanaka, who in 2006 demonstrated a way to reprogram skin cells to resemble embryonic cells. Their research will focus on cures for Parkinson’s spinal muscular atrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). In Gore’s words: "The trans-Pacific collaboration is likely to dramatically accelerate the drug-discovery process."

Although Gore’s involvement in iPS cells is new and groundbreaking, this is old news for many. Discovery of iPS cells and their promise goes back two years, but Americans understandably have been distracted by emotional politicians wishing, oh geez, that Superman had been able to walk again! It was much easier to blame George W. Bush and all those anti-science, pro-life wackos than it was to read those boring stories about pluperfect potentates inducted into the hall of fame or something. Whatever.

In fact, so stunning was the discovery that Time magazine named iPS innovation one of the “10 Best Scientific Discoveries of 2007” and the journal Science rated it the No. 1 breakthrough of 2008.

So encouraged was Dr. Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep, that he abandoned his license to attempt human cloning, saying that the researchers “...may have achieved what no politician could: an end to the embryonic stem-cell debate.” Last month, Dr. Bernadine Healy, director of the National Institutes of Health under the first President Bush, wrote in U.S. News & World Report that these recent developments “reinforced the notion that embryonic stem cells... are obsolete.”

If you didn’t get the memo, that’s because too many people are invested in embryonic stem cells. And, of course, scientists pleased with President Barack Obama’s release of federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells argue that all avenues of research should be pursued—no matter what.

But the “no matter what” is problematic and worthy of our discomfort. Embryonic stem-cell research necessarily destroys a human embryo, which is what we all were once upon a time. You can slice and dice that concept however it suits, but the truth remains: You were once “it.” That thing. That cluster of cells. Regardless of how one gets through the night, it is inarguably better to avoid destroying life whenever one can.

Here and now, one can. And I’m not a Catholic, lapsed or otherwise. It just makes sense. Gore apparently thinks so, too. And he’s not an idiot, right?

Bravo, while we’re at it. May the former vice president get ever richer saving lives.

Xtra Insight: Neurobiologist Maureen L. Condic fact-checks 11 stem cell arguments and asks, does research really need human embryos?

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and author of Save the Males.