October 13, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Stem Cells: Hurry Up and Wait

When will embryonic stem cells produce cures for Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, paralysis and other maladies these wonder-cells were promised to bring?  Be prepared to wait.  If predictions of leading proponents are accurate, and if California is to be a world leader in stem cell research and clinical trials, even Christopher Reeve would have died long before any lab could have provided hope.  Constance Holden wrote in Science this week:1

Last week, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) unveiled a draft of its “strategic plan” for the next 10 years.  The 149-page blueprint offers timelines for initiatives from basic research to public outreach and warns that no therapies using human embryonic stem (ES) cells are likely for at least a decade.

In Current Biology,2 Michael Gross reported on the hope vs hype in stem cell technologies.  Companies are promising therapies to families of desperate patients without proper disclosure, without adequate testing, and without proper precautions against contamination.  Legal loopholes in international trade tempt companies to engage in the lucrative business.  Ethical infractions have occurred both in the ES stem cell trade and in those from umbilical cord blood.
    Gross blurred the distinction between embryonic (ES) cells and those from cord blood and adult tissues.  For all the faults of some adult stem cell vendors, adult stem cells do not cross ethical barriers many consider crucial to the argument.  Gross agreed that verifiable cures are years away, though he ended with a story of a company named Geron in Menlo Park ready to undergo clinical trials next year for a spinal cord treatment.  He did not mention if the treatment uses adult or embryonic stem cells.  The Geron website shows them involved in embryonic stem cell research.
    Michael Foust criticized the broken promises of stem cell advocates in his article for Baptist Press.  He quoted C. Ben Mitchell, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in suburban Chicago.  “The embryonic stem cell hype has been running far ahead of the research from the beginning,” Dr. Mitchell said.  “The cheerleaders for embryonic stem cell research have created the unrest among Californians themselves.  They have created expectations that may never be met.”
    Californians will have to fork over the money anyway.  Constance Holden noted that there is “hot competition for the first round of 45 grants: UCSF alone may submit as many as 41 applications.”  Labs should be eager to spend money for which there is no performance clause.  Foust wrote, “The fact that the institute is not promising cures within 10 years doesn’t sit well with many Californians who had hoped to see cures in the short-term.”  That’s just for the Californians who are paying attention enough to know about the CIRM plan – or who even remember what they voted for two years ago.


1Constance Holden, “California Stem-Cell Institute Unveils 10-Year Plan,” Science, 13 October 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5797, p. 237, DOI: 10.1126/science.314.5797.237b.
2Michael Gross, “Stem cell selling,” Current Biology, Volume 16, Issue 19, 10 October 2006, pages R818-R819, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.09.008.

Californians, already burdened by bonded indebtedness to the gills of their grandchildren, nevertheless voted in Nov. 2004 to fund $3 billion in bonds for stem cell research.  They were probably thinking on shorter time scales.  The ads in favor of Proposition 71 promised miracle cures and played on the heartstrings of voters, using stories of the afflicted as if stem cells were just within the reach of a chain of dollar bills.  What did you expect?  Scientists whose evolutionary ethics that see no problem with killing a human embryo shouldn’t have any qualms about lying to voters, too.  Whatever works: that’s natural election.

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