Perversions of Science!

Monster Farming: The creepy solution to the stem-cell debate.

William Hurlbut seems to be the only person in this debate who has figured out that the Catholic fixation on the technical definition of a human embryo, which stem-cell researchers regard as a roadblock, actually presents an opportunity. [...]

Hurlbut has modeled his recipe on "aberrant products of fertilization" and teratomas, which, he explains, are "germ cell tumors that generate all three primary embryonic germ layers as well as more advanced cells and tissues, including partial limb and organ primordia." Limb and organ primordia? Yep, that's what's on the screen: a ball of tissue, grown inside some poor creature, full of bits and pieces of what would have been a body. Another slide shows an X-ray image of somebody's back. To the left of the spine, you can see a cluster of white spots that look like teeth. And that's exactly what they are, all dressed up and no place to chomp. You wanted disorganized development? You got it. [...]

Hurlbut replies, coldly but correctly, that according to the technical definition favored by opponents of stem-cell research, the thing can't die because it was never alive. Michael Gazzaniga, the council's most liberal member, calls Hurlbut's strategy a perversion of science. Instead of tinkering with language to fit biology, he observes, Hurlbut is tinkering with biology to fit language.

I strongly recommend that you not type the word "teratoma" into Google Image Search.

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35 Responses:

  1. mooflyfoof says:

    thank you for posting this-- i'd been trying to think of the name of that disease so i could do some research on it, but was drawing a blank. mmm, medical oddities.

    • jwz says:

      A few years ago I read a book called "Rapid Growth" by Mary Hanner about a plague of teratomas. The descriptions were extremely creepy.

      • mooflyfoof says:

        sounds interesting. i should check that out!

        i've heard rumors of another disturbing thing along these lines. it involved an apparently normal person displaying weird symptoms of illness. finally they discovered that they had a parasitic twin growing inside them. maybe it was actually a teratoma. either, way... *shiver*

        ever read the book treason by orson scott card? this reminds me of that.

        • quercus says:

          It's a rare form of lithopaedion (stone child) where either a foetus or (very rarely) a conjoined twin remains inside the body until it eventually becomes calcified.

          It's definitely not a teratoma - it's an essential definition of teratoma that they're differentiated tissue types from the normal body (hence all the hair and teeth), but they're not a separately developing body. It's more like an extra polydactyl finger, except it doesn't know it ought to be a finger.

          • mooflyfoof says:

            oh wow. yeah, that's really creepy. i wasn't sure if the rumor i heard was true or not. lithopaedion, teratoma-- these are things i want to learn more about!

  2. soundofwater says:

    Teratoma has been suggested as the origin of the vagina dentata myth.

  3. g_na says:

    I strongly recommend that you not type the word "teratoma" into Google Image Search.

    You, of course, know what I did as soon as I read this.

    Getting off the main topic a bit, I'm sure you've heard of The Mütter Museum? They have a book out as well. I really need to go there; it looks amazing.

    • lifftchi says:

      You, of course, know what I did as soon as I read this.

      Okay, who here did not _immediately_ do that? Anyone?

    • jkonrath says:

      The National Museum of Health and Medicine at the Walter Reed center in DC is also a treasure trove of medical oddities and stomach-churning exhibits. Plus it's always interesting to see skull fragments of a former President (Abe Lincoln.)

    • luserspaz says:

      The Mütter Museum is awesome. I highly recommend it. The only part of it that creeps me out is the "jars of deformed fetuses" section. They do have Chang and Eng's (the original Siamese twins!) conjoined liver though. Also "a piece of John Wilkes Booth." That is the actual description. I am not making this up.

    • sclatter says:

      Getting off the main topic a bit, I'm sure you've heard of The Mütter Museum? They have a book out as well. I really need to go there; it looks amazing.

      *happy dance* I'm going on Sunday!!! :-) Most of my classmates (first year PhD biology students) are going, to celebrate the end of our first semester. Expected to be an excellent time for all who participate!

  4. 5tephe says:

    if they think that the Catholic Church will greenlight this kind of thing, they are insane: They don't advocate wearing a condom to change the course of God's Will, let alone slicing out a part of an embryo's DNA in order to make it non-viable. Note- you have to slice that DNA out of an EMBRYO, not an egg or sperm. So in other words, conception has already happened.
    And really (not that I am generally with the CC on most issues) once you start narrowing your definition of 'Human' to such an extent, you soon find yourself asking, "Does a person with Cerebral Palsy have the requisite 'organisational coherency' to qualify? Or at least, do ALL Spastics have it?"

    And then we're euthanasing cripples....

    • twblalock says:

      Every sperm is sacred,
      every sperm is great.
      And if a sperm is wasted,
      God gets quite irate.

    • treptoplax says:

      you have to slice that DNA out of an EMBRYO, not an egg or sperm

      If I'm reading it right, no. You cut the DNA out of an unfertilized egg, pull DNA from a random cell, sabotage it, put it in said egg, and give the egg a kick to make it start splitting (into a disorganized mass of stem cells).

      Creepy as all get out, possibly cloning, but not precisely destruction of an embryo.

      • 5tephe says:

        Hmmm...
        Apart from the fact that no one has a way to "give the egg a kick" yet, other than fertilising it with a sperm. That, and the fact that human zygotes each only contain 23 chromosomes, whereas a viable human embryo (with or without the 'snipped' strand) has 46, two from each parent.

        Also, when an emryo has a defective chromosome inherited from one parent, then it often just 'switches off' the defective one, and uses the intact other. If you only did the egg, then you'd have a decent chancethat the embryo would develop normally, using the 'unsnipped' father's DNA.

        I guess you could take and egg, and a sperm, remove their genetic material, snip each of them, re-insert the material, and then fertilise the one with the other... but then we are talking a lot more expense, and a lot less likely sucess.

        And none of this addresses the issue of narrowing our definition of 'human'

        I'm mildly colour blind. No big deal right? But technically, it could be argued that I didn't have the genetic coherency to create a properly formed human. 1 in 4 men are colour blind.

        Therein lies the danger of changing your definitions to make your research easier, or more acceptable.

        I think that stem cell research is vital to alleviating a lot of the suffering inherent in the human condition, I just think that the bio-ethicists will have to look at this puppy really carefully. Especially because many people who don't know exactly how all this works (no slight intended, I make no claim to being better informed about this process than you or jwz) might look upon it as a panacea for every problem facing the research.

        What if it is imoral? Or at least amoral?

        • fantasygoat says:

          I've heard the slipery-slope argument before but come on, let's be realistic. It would never get to aborting colour-blind fetuses. It's a straw man argument.

          • 5tephe says:

            Nonetheless, the article gets it wrong: he isn't changing the science to get around the definitions, he is refining the definitions to get science access to the teratomas. (sure, it's more complex than that, as he is involved in generating the teratomasbut...)

            Look: teratomas happen naturally, and in some cases babies are born which don't have the requisite "organisational coherency" to have created what we would call a human. Now, mostly, these lumps are viewed as a tragic mistake- granted, generally because the desired outcome was a different one. This guy, wants to make more of them.

            I know the colour blindness example is a fatuous one, but you have to bring it up. It usefully highlights the difficulty in forming definitions in an organic, functionally analog process like human biology.

            I would postulate that the only reason the 'slippery slope' argument appears invalid is because people exersise it, thereby arresting the slide (to some degree).

            It wasn't used in pre-WWII Germany, (damn! Never mention The War: it's overused) the USA two years ago, and now we have the largest superpower in the world invading sovereign nations without U.N. backing. Poor precedent.

            I always treat with deep suspicion any argument or policy suggestion that simply involves changing definitions. Granted, this case isn't that simple, but it is one of the core elements.

        • glaed says:

          Apart from the fact that no one has a way to "give the egg a kick" yet, other than fertilising it with a sperm.

          http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99996733

          "A trick that persuades human eggs to divide as if they have been fertilised could provide a source of embryonic stem cells that sidesteps ethical objections to existing techniques....
          But Josephine Quintavalle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, a London-based pro-life lobby group greeted the new procedure with caution. "I'd be happier if it was beyond all reasonable doubt that it could not become a human life.""

        • stick_figure says:

          I think you mean gametes. Gametes are the sex cells, zygote is the product of fertilization.

        • treptoplax says:

          Apart from the fact that no one has a way to "give the egg a kick" yet, other than fertilising it with a sperm. That, and the fact that human zygotes each only contain 23 chromosomes

          Actually, we do. This is exactly how cloning works. You take an unfertilized egg, remove the (half) DNA, put the (full, complete) DNA from a normal cell into it, and then try to induce it to start dividing (I think a tiny electric shock, or poking it, or...). Now, usually it doesn't start dividing, but sometimes it does. Usually it doesn't develop properly, but sometimes it does. Success of this procedure with mammals is something like 5%, last I heard.

          So this procedure is just human cloning, with the cloned DNA purposely sabotaged to prevent development.

          Whether it's a good idea is still an open question...

  5. b_a_t says:

    Of course i did click imediately... And - my mozilla together with X crashed :>

    So I was wondering - is *THAT* was the (un)desired effect of such a search :)?

  6. boldra says:

    "The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman" is an excellent book about meeting of South American mythology and Catholocism, which also includes a Teratoma, and the Catholics reaction to it.

    I can't compare Louis de Bernieres style to anything else I've read, but perhaps if Dungeons and Dragons had been invented in Colombia by a mushroom user in the 19th century it might look a bit like this (except that there are more helicopters).

    Boldra

  7. taffer says:

    Slate sucks, that article has no pictures.

    • cwillu says:

      See this convenient link I've put here? Don't click it, whatever you do. Its purpose here is entirely to allow us a concrete reference to the thing you must do. Must not do. Bah.