The Nebraska stem cell trial

Opponents continue to hope that Nebraska's refusal will start a prairie fire against use of new embryonic stem cell lines, especially given recent successes with adult stem cells.

The decision by University of Nebraska regents on whether to go back to the Bush Administration's rules on stem cells, expected today, means nothing to the future of that research.

But it has become a modern equivalent of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial," immortalized in a movie version of the play "Inherit the Wind," starring Spencer Tracy, Frederic March (right) and Gene Kelly.

(Yes, that's Harry Morgan, later Col. Potter on M*A*S*H, as the judge. A fine character actor and still, gratefully, with us.)

As with the original Monkey Trial, the result of the Regents' vote will be irrelevant. Whether Nebraska does or does not pursue stem cell research won't change the path of science any more than fining a schoolteacher changed evolution.

But, again as with the Monkey Trial, this is all about symbolism and the appeal to crowds. Opponents have gotten 6,900 petition signatures for their position.  Both sides are buying ad time.

As The New York Times notes in its story on the controversy, University of Nebraska regents are publicly elected. This has been an issue for a long, long time.

Opponents insist they're not anti-science, and that they support work with adult stem cells. But the university's medical center has already postponed applications to use stimulus money for future studies and recruitment.

So if Nebraska says no, that's just good news for schools like Wake Forest, where a spin-off company called Advanced Cell Technologies is now seeking FDA permission to use cells derived from embryonic stem cells for treatment of eye disease.

Opponents continue to hope that Nebraska's refusal will start a prairie fire against use of new embryonic stem cell lines, especially given recent successes with adult stem cells. That is unlikely. But that was the claim of William Jennings Bryan (March), too.

So, when this becomes a movie, who will Johnny Depp play?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com