In the beginning, one cell becomes two, and two become four. Being fruitful, they multiply into a ball of many cells, a shimmering sphere of human potential. Scientists have long dreamed of plucking those naive cells from a young human embryo and coaxing them to perform, in sterile isolation, the everyday miracle they perform in wombs: transforming into all the 200 or so kinds of cells that constitute a human body. Liver cells. Brain cells. Skin, bone, and nerve.
The dream is to launch a medical revolution in which ailing organs and tissues might be repaired—not with crude mechanical devices like insulin pumps and titanium joints but with living, homegrown replacements. It would be the dawn of a new era of regenerative medicine, one of the holy grails of modern biology.
Revolutions, alas, are almost always messy. So when James Thomson, a soft-spoken scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, reported in November 1998 that he had succeeded in removing cells from spare embryos at fertility clinics and establishing the world’s first human embryonic stem cell line, he and other scientists got a lot more than they bargained for. It was the kind of discovery that under most circumstances would have blossomed into a major federal research enterprise. Instead the discovery was quickly engulfed in the turbulent waters of religion and politics. In church pews, congressional hearing rooms, and finally the Oval Office, people wanted to know: Where were the needed embryos going to come from, and how many would have to be destroyed to treat the millions of patients who might be helped? Before long, countries around the world were embroiled in the debate.