“You are our only hope”: Trading metaphorical “magic bullets” for stem cell “superheroes”
- 251 Downloads
In the wake of two recent developments in stem cell research, it is a fitting time to reassess the claim that stem cells will radically transform the concept and function of medicine. The first is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decision in January 2009 to approve Geron Corporation’s Phase I clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells for patients with spinal cord injuries. The second is the National Institutes of Health’s decision to permit federal funding of research using donated IVF human embryos in their July 2009 Guidelines on Human Stem Cell Research. We are now poised to see whether stem cell research can deliver on what it promises. However, what exactly does it promise and how? Moreover, who is doing the promising? Turning to the use of metaphor can help us to answer these questions and enable us to develop a better appreciation of the unique features of promised stem cell therapies. Indeed, metaphors have exerted profound influence in medicine, and it is fitting that we seek new metaphors for new therapies where appropriate. In this case, other metaphors such as magic bullets or the Holy Grail cannot capture what is unique about stem cells. Accordingly, I propose a new metaphor: the stem cell superhero. Stem cell superheroes are characterized by the following traits: they are seemingly capable of fighting the evil of virtually all disease (unlike “magic bullets”) and they seem to be our only hope of doing so, although to summon them we must make difficult moral choices. In the course of assessing the merits of three recent yet covert references to the superhero metaphor, I conclude that this powerful new paradigm employs a problematic logic (i.e., we cannot know that something is “our only hope”), but that the aspiration as such is a good one.
KeywordsHuman embryonic stem cells Superhero Medicine Magic bullet Metaphors Cybridization
The research for this paper was supported by a Grant-in-Aid from Associated Medical Services (2006-07) and the research assistance of Caroline McInnes and Chris Kaposy.
- 1.Geron. 2009. News release: Geron receives FDA clearance to begin world’s first human clinical trial of embryonic stem cell based therapy. http://www.geron.com/grnopc1clearance/grnopc1-pr.html. Accessed 5 Nov 2009.
- 2.National Institutes of Health. 2009. NIH guidelines on human stem cell research. http://stemcells.nih.gov/policy/2009guidelines.htm. Accessed 5 Nov 2009.
- 3.Nussbaum, M.C. 1997. Poetic justice: The literary imagination and public life. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
- 4.Sontag, S. 2001. Illness as metaphor and AIDS and its metaphors. New York, NY: Picador USA.Google Scholar
- 5.Callahan, D. 2006. What price better health?: Hazards of the research imperative. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
- 6.Storch, J. 1999. Moral relationships between nurse and client: The influence of metaphors. In Readings in biomedical ethics: A Canadian focus, 2nd ed, ed. E.-H.W. Kluge, 143–153. Scarborough, ON: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
- 7.Childress, J.F. 1997. Practical reasoning in bioethics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
- 8.Gibbs, R. 2000. Why ethics?: Signs of responsibilities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
- 9.Prüll, C.R. 2003. Part of a scientific master plan? Paul Ehrlich and the origins of his receptor concept. Medical History 47: 332–356.Google Scholar
- 10.Beers, M.H., and R. Berkow. 1999. The Merck manual of diagnosis and therapy. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories.Google Scholar
- 11.Duffin, J. 1999. History of medicine: A scandalously short introduction. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
- 12.Geron. 2009. News release: Geron comments on FDA hold on spinal cord injury trial. http://www.geron.com/media/pressview.aspx?id=1188. Accessed 5 Nov 2009.
- 15.Shamblott, M.J., J. Axelman, S. Wang, E.M. Bugg, J.W. Littlefield, P.J. Donovan, P.D. Lumenthal, G.R. Huggins, and J. Gearhart. 1998. Derivation of pluripotent stem cells from cultured human primordial germ cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 95(23): 13726–13731.Google Scholar
- 18.Yu, J., M.A. Vodyanik, K. Smuga-Otto, J. Antosiewicz-Bourget, J.L. Frane, S. Tian, J. Nie, G.A. Jonsdottir, V. Ruotti, R. Stewart, I.I. Slukvin, J.A. Thomson, and A. James. 2008. Induced pluripotent stem cell lines derived from human somatic cells. Obstetrical and Gynecological Survey 63: 154–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- 21.Cheshire, W.P. 2004. In search of the philosopher’s clone: Immortality through replication. In Aging, death and the quest for immortality, ed. C.D. Mitchell, R.D. Orr, and S.A. Salladay, 175–192. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.Google Scholar
- 22.Ackerknecht, E.H. 1982. A Short history of medicine. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
- 23.Sigerist, H.E. 1967. The medicine man. In A history of medicine, vol. 1, 161–189. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- 24.Stanford Report. 2004. 5 Questions: Irving Weissman on embryonic stem cell research. http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2004/august4/med-5questions-84.html. Accessed 5 Nov 2009.
- 25.Conger, K. 2009. News release: NIH stem cell rules seriously flawed, says Stanford expert. http://med.stanford.edu/news_releases/2009/july/nih-reax.html. Accessed 5 Nov 2009.
- 26.Vergano, D. 2003. States dive into stem cell debates. USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2004-04-20-stem-cell-cover_x.htm. Accessed 21 Dec 2009.
- 27.Leschner, A.I. and J.A. Thomson. 2007. Standing in the way of stem cell research. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/02/AR2007120201636.html. Accessed 21 Dec 2009.
- 28.Blakemore, C. 2008. Embryo research is controversial … But would you refuse the treatment? The Times Online. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article3655941.ece. Accessed 27 Nov 2009.
- 29.Shorter, E. 1997. The history of the doctor-patient relationship. In Companion encyclopaedia of the history of medicine, vol. 2, ed. W.F. Bynum and R. Porter, 783–800. New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
- 30.Hwang, W.S., Y.J. Ryu, J.H. Park, E.S. Park, E.G. Lee, J.M. Koo, H.Y. Jeon, B.C. Lee, S.K. Kang, S.J. Kim, C. Ahn, J.H. Hwang, K.Y. Park, J.B. Cibelli, and S.Y. Moon. 2004. Evidence of a pluripotent human embryonic stem cell line derived from a cloned blastocyst. Science 303: 1669–1674.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- 31.Hwang, W.S., S.I. Roh, B.C. Lee, S.K. Kang, D.K. Kwon, S. Kim, S.J. Kim, S.W. Park, H.S. Kwon, C.K. Lee, J.B. Lee, J.M. Kim, C. Ahn, S.H. Paek, S.S. Chang, J.J. Koo, H.S. Yoon, J.H. Hwang, Y.Y. Hwang, Y.S. Park, S.K. Oh, H.S. Kim, J.H. Park, S.Y. Moon, and G. Schatten. 2005. Patient-specific embryonic stem cells derived from human SCNT blastocysts. Science 308: 1777–1783.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- 36.Park J.-M. 2009. Disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo-Suk found guilty of embezzlement. Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/la-fg-korea-clone-scientist27-2009oct27,0,1990328.story. Accessed 5 Nov 2009.
- 38.Ullrich, D. 2003. Concurring visions: Human dignity in the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms and the basic law of the Federal Republic of Germany. Global Jurist Frontiers 3(1): Article 1. http://www.bepress.com/gj/frontiers/vol3/iss1/art1/. Accessed 27 May 2009.
- 39.German National Ethics Council. 2001. On the import of human embryonic stem cells. Berlin. http://www.ethikrat.org/_english/publications/stem_cells/Opinion_Import-HESC.pdf. Accessed 5 Nov 2009.
- 40.Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft–DFG. 2001. Empfehlungen der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft zur Forschung mit menschlichen Stammzellen. Bonn. Excerpts translated by Chris Kaposy. http://www.dfg.de/aktuelles_presse/reden_stellungnahmen/download/empfehlungen_stammzellen_hintergrund_03_05_01.pdf. Accessed 5 Nov 2009.
- 41.Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA). 2008. 17 January. HFEA statement on licensing of applications to carry out research using human-animal cytoplasmic hybrid embryos. http://www.hfea.gov.uk/418.html. Accessed 5 Nov 2009.
- 42.Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA). 2007. 5 September. HFEA statement on its decision regarding human embryos. http://www.hfea.gov.uk/455.html. Accessed 5 November 2009.
- 43.Genetic Interest Group. 2008. Cytoplasmic hybrid embryos. Last updated 11 Sept 2008. http://www.gig.org.uk/cytoplasmichybridembryos.htm. Accessed 5 Nov 2009.
- 46.Brown, G. 2008. Why I believe stem cell researchers deserve our backing. The Observer. 18 May: 31.Google Scholar