“The Lingering Concequences of Nationalism-Socialism” or Thoughts on Science in Europe

Oct 19th, 2007 | By | Category: Embryonic Stem Cell Research


I’ve just returned from a week long trip to Germany (Düsseldorf and Dresden) for scientific meetings on stem cell research and regenerative medicine–the land of cheerful public artwork, amazing cab drivers and tear-inducing-good mass transit. How many hybrids did I see? Zero

Some thoughts:


Human embryonic stem cell research in Germany is under tight restrictions. It is a criminal offense to destroy an embryo—defined quite conservatively as a fertilized egg after the fusion of the sperm and egg pronuclei. No stem cell line created after January 1st 2002 may be used at all, with private or public funds. Nor can research in Germany encourage the destruction of embryos elsewhere. In contrast, while public funded research is restricted in the United States to lines created before August of 2001, with private funds one can do essentially anything. The Germany policy, while more restrictive, is at least ethically consistent.

The policy reflects underlying conflict in the Germany constitution, between requirements to respect human life and the independence of science. This duality is reflected in North Rhine Westphalia Stem Cell Network‘s structure, combining both scientists and ethicists together in a cohesive program. As one of the local scientists delicately put it, “concerns over the lingering consequences of Nationalism-Socialism cause conservatism on the use of human tissues in research.” Slowly, the policy is liberalizing.

The embryonic stem cell ‘debate’ in the United States, between absolutist scriptural moralists and absolutist libertarians, is distressingly silly and unserious in comparison. (I personally favor an approach modeled from solid organ transplantation, in which the creation and distribution of human embryonic stem cells should be strictly decommercialized and regulated by an independent agency. And, I work on a near-daily basis with human embryonic stem cells.) The asinine Bush policies have guaranteed we will not have a quality debate on this subject. For that, one must go to the country where, not so long ago, my relations were processed into candles, buttons and soap.



The universality of English in science was startling to experience firsthand. Deep within the former East Germany—where Russian still predominates over English as the second language for “political reasons in the past” as per my host—scientific talks are given in English, even when no native speakers are present. Without fluency in English, one cannot publish in the most widely read journals, attend the highest quality conferences, or even access the vast repositories of biological data available online.

Here is where the NIH’s budget (comparatively paltry to the military budget) really pays off. For the decades following World War II, the brightest minds in the world have been drawn here, studied in American Universities and occasionally settled in our country. Those who return home become powerful ambassadors for American policy and worldview in the highly influential technocratic class. After now experiencing this effect firsthand, I’d gladly drink George Marshall’s bathwater.

With our newly punitive immigration policies–everyone gets fingerprinted and eyeball scanned upon arriving, a deeply unwelcoming act–, startling xenophobia of many Americans and steady cuts of the NIH budget (in real dollar terms) might finally kill off this effect. We’re fools for risking it.


Even more acutely than the the United States, Germany is facing an aging population and abundant heart disease. Right now, the best available treatment for congestive heart failure is heart transplantation. The problem: not enough hearts to go around. The strong restrictions on embryonic stem cell research in Germany have resulted in the most aggressive trials of adult stem cell based therapies for heart disease that can be found in Western medicine. The results so far are mixed at best, with weak evidence for any benefit and some potential risk to patients.

These trials are shockingly audacious–going straight from (unreproduced, and largely unreproducible so far) trials in rodents directly to humans, skipping the typical large-animal studies. Here is where the strong concern for protecting embryos results in adult human beings–unquestionably human life–being put at risk. Looking at all the evidence so far, embryonic stem cell derived heart cells are superior to adult stem cells in helping rodents recover from heart attacks. Large animal trials of the embryonic stem cell therapies are just now beginning–properly so–before trials in humans begin. The FDA might be a pain-in-the-ass, but they still can do a decent job of protecting human life, including adult human life, from harm during trials.