Show Me the Stem Cells!

George W. Bush has ruled that there’s no need to approve the harvesting of additional stem cells from discarded embryos because scientists around the world have already established 60 different stem cell lines. This decision has sparked all kinds of “morally serious” debate about whether any embryo-derived stem cell research is ethical, and about whether 60 stem cell lines would be enough to support meaningful medical research. What it hasn’t led to is much empirical evidence that Bush’s 60 stem cell lines really exist. (A report released June 17 by the National Institutes of Health states, “[T]here are approximately 30 cell lines of human pluripotent stem cells that have been derived from human blastocysts or fetal tissue.” On Aug. 13 the Wall Street Journal, which has done the best reporting on this, specified 19 cell lines.) Nor do we have much consumer information about the quality of whatever stem cell lines do exist. The NIH says it will publish a registry of the 60 stem cell lines as soon as the companies and/or individuals poised to get rich off them agree to go public. With every self-respecting biotech tycoon now at the beach, that could take weeks. Meanwhile, amid the late-August doldrums, most of the news media seem content to wait.

But why wait? Chatterbox hereby invites knowledgeable individuals with reliable information about what these stem cell lines may be, and who developed or owns them, to write Please supply means of verification–a news clipping, a Web link, the name of someone Chatterbox may contact. Chatterbox will then post the list and invite scientific experts to e-mail (again, to whatever they know about the quality of each stem cell line. Finally, Chatterbox will distill these opinions, hopefully in a way that’s fair-minded and comprehensible to the lay person, in a third item.

If the NIH beats Chatterbox to the punch, or if the big news organizations manage to compile lengthy and authoritative lists of their own, Chatterbox will skip Step 1 and proceed directly to soliciting scientific opinion about the usefulness of the Bush 60.