July 2008

Kevin Arthur

nonfiction

The Stem Cell Dilemma: Beacons of Hope or Harbingers of Doom? by Leo Furcht and William Hoffman

The Stem Cell Dilemma is a clear, if boosterish, guide to the recent history of stem cell research and its attendant controversies. Stem cells are the "silver bullet" of medicine, write Leo Furcht and William Hoffman. "They could alleviate all manner of suffering, whether caused by disease, injury, or genetic fate." We are at the beginning of a "biorenaissance" the authors state, repeatedly. In case you don't catch the Renaissance analogy, they begin each chapter with a Leonardo quote and a Renaissance story to hammer the point home.

Embryonic stem cells are of course the headliners in this story. They are "pluripotent" cells that architect tissue development in the body and which scientists hope to harness for therapies. In late 2007, and shortly before this book went to press, researchers in Japan and the United States claimed to have reprogrammed skin cells to do the same. Furcht and Hoffman discuss that finding here, but say it's too early to know its impact. It is likely that researchers will continue basing their research on embryonic stem cells for the foreseeable future.

Furcht and Hoffman give a clear description of the science behind stem cells and the theory of how they could be used for regenerative medicine. The actual practice of these techniques may be decades away, though -- much research remains to be done and the outcome is far from certain. The authors are careful to acknowledge this when necessary, but these occasional bits of realism are somewhat undermined by the rhetoric elsewhere in the book, especially in the early chapters.

The chapter on ethics acknowledges the religious objections to embryonic stem cell research. Furcht and Hoffman don't debate that argument here, which is understandable. Other ethical concerns are given short shrift, though, such as egg donation and egg donor compensation for stem cell research and therapies.

What's most surprising and original in this book is the final chapter called "Harbingers of Destruction," in which the authors describe the threat of new bio-engineered weapons based on stem cells. The fear of such weapons has led the US Department of Defense to engage in a massive effort to head off a bioweapons arms race (in other words, to start one). Besides weapons development, the defense department is working to develop stem cell therapies for the battlefield. They are also developing an "immune system in a bottle" -- a complete artificial human immune system against which to test vaccines and weapons. This monumental project is unprecedented and may dwarf even the Manhattan Project in its impact, say Furcht and Hoffman: "To understand the immune system enough to re-create it is to possess the potential biological power of annihilation."

The Stem Cell Dilemma has an obvious agenda. Furcht and Hoffman want more federal funding for stem cell research and want the US to regain the lead over other countries in the race to develop regenerative medicine. This book should satisfy anyone looking for a clear description of the science behind stem cell research and a recapping of the main arguments in favor of it.

The Stem Cell Dilemma: Beacons of Hope or Harbingers of Doom? by Leo Furcht and William Hoffman
Arcade Publishing
ISBN: 1559708727
352 Pages