Geron, a biotech research company based in Menlo Park, CA -- and the first to ever be approved to run trials with embryonic stem cells -- just announced that it would abandon its pursuit of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) therapies to combat paralysis, and instead redirect its efforts toward cancer research programs.
Though it may sound insensitive to say that, especially to those who are paralyzed and have placed hope in this research, there is a very good reason to do so: Cancer research actually holds the promise of helping people. ESCR promises only to kill some people in order to help other people.
I will not go into the reasons for saying that here. I have already addressed the moral issues that come with ESCR in other places (here, here and here). I would simply like to point out the pure economics of this issue and the utter bankruptcy, both moral and financial, that accompanies the pursuit of embryonic stem cells.
Interestingly, when Geron announced its decision, the company "cited difficult economic conditions, which make it hard to raise money, as the reason for quitting its stem cell work." Now, considering the lofty claims and promises made by ESCR advocates over the years (complete with pictures of Christopher Reeve captioned to include the possibility that he would walk again), it seems hard to imagine that it would be difficult to raise money to fund the effort. Surely, some risk-taking venture capitalist would be more than willing to pony up some cash at the prospect of being rewarded beyond measure by the most exciting research on the planet. But none has done so, and the reason is simple.
It doesn't work.
When you consider the ethical issues that surround ESCR, combined with the fact that adult stem cell research has yielded nearly 80 successful therapies while embryonic stem cells have produced exactly zero, it becomes not only an ethical no-brainer but an economic one as well. The executives who run Geron are not stupid. They know when their research is headed into a black hole. It's not a lousy economy that has stymied them -- it is economic reality.
Which brings us to the federal government -- a bureaucratic and ethical black hole of its own -- for which economic reality carries no weight. As Chuck Colson points out, the issues that prompted Geron to pitch the project have had the opposite effect on the National Institutes of Health which, just before Christmas, quietly made the ethically and fiscally bankrupt decision to spend more money on ESCR by funding three more lines of research.
Sleep well America. Your tax dollars are hard at work. Consequences be damned.