July 19, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Keep the Stem Cell News Straight

Stem cell technology continues to make news, but the phrase “stem cells” alone can mask serious ethical issues.  Adult stem cells (AS) and embryonic stem cells (ES) are both being investigated for their ability to transform into any cell type in the body.  Both are advertised as promising dramatic cures for debilitating diseases, with their ability to regenerate damaged tissue.  ES cells are controversial, however, because a human embryo must be created and destroyed to harvest the cells.  AS cells have no such ethical baggage: they can be harvested safely from an individual’s own bone marrow, from skin, from cord blood, from placental tissue and other organs.
    News articles about “stem cells” do not always highlight the source of the cells, but the distinction is important in more than one sense.  As the following examples illustrate, ethically-challenged ES research holds only empty promises, while ethically-safe AS research has a growing record of impressive real-world therapies:

  1. Adult Stem Cell News
    1. Amyloidosis:  A debilitating condition known as amyloidosis, which results in organ failure and death from misfolded proteins, has been successfully treated in 31% of test cases at Boston University Medical Center by blood stem cells and chemotherapy, reported EurekAlert.  The patients showed improvement in both organ function and quality of life, the article said.
    2. Cornea Defects:  Experiments on rabbits by Basque Research showed that adult stem cells from one cornea can regrow damaged cornea cells on the other eye.  “The aim of the procedure was to regain the damaged epithelium and thus restore transparency to the cornea,” the researchers said, and “The technique is being currently applied to patients with satisfactory results.”
    3. Tissue Replacement:  Researchers at UC Berkeley and Stony Brook University achieved remarkable success growing mesenchymal stem cells on a scaffold of biodegradable nanofibers.  The results, published in PNAS,1 not only grew new endothelial cells, they resisted the formation of clots that occurred without the stem cells.
    4. Parkinson’s Disease:  In the same issue of PNAS,2 a team of scientists from Yale, Harvard Medical School, UC San Diego and other institutions successfully treated primates suffering with Parkinson’s disease with human neural stem cells.  The cells “survived, migrated, and had a functional impact” in the subjects.  The neural stem cells, however, though not embryonic, were derived from human fetal brains, raising other ethical red flags.  The article did not say if neural stem cells could be derived in other ways.
    5. Hearing:  As reported here 07/01/2007, adult stem cells have also shown promise to cure hearing disorders that were once thought beyond the reach of medicine.  Bone marrow stem cells survived and grew in the inner ear, regenerating damaged hair cells.
    6. Magic brew:  Nature3 reported on the promising method of obtaining “ES-like” pluripotent stem cells from skin.  The new “induced pluripotent stem cell” technique, tried on mice, is showing promise for getting all the benefits of ES cells without the need for the embryos.  “If this method can be translated to humans,” Janet Rossant wrote, “patient-specific stem cells could be made without the use of donated eggs or embryos.”  The reported cells passed the test of being able to contribute extensively to all cell types, including the germ line.
          Next will be the hard task of going from proof-of-principle to actual therapy.  Rossant called the new stem cell elixir a “magic brew” ending with these encouraging words: “direct reprogramming of adult cells is clearly the way of the future, and promises to open up new frontiers in human biology and future therapy.

  2. Embryonic Stem Cell News
    1. Slated to die anyway:  Last month, Science reported on the ethical concerns over human embryo use from fertility clinics.4  Acknowledging the “moral concerns” and “contentious debates” over the use of human embryos in research, Anne Lyerly and Ruth Faden made the case that stored embryos from clinics will die anyway, and argued that 66% of the public doesn’t have a problem with using them.  They also cited “mounting evidence that American scientists are losing ground to other countries with less restrictive policies.”
    2. Technical progress, but…:  Late in June, Constance Holden expressed the frustration among stem cell researchers at President Bush’s refusal to allow federal funding for ES research.5  (President Bush had just vetoed a second bill on June 18; see Science Daily.)  Although she cited several recent advances in methods for harvesting the stem cells for embryos, no applications or cures were mentioned.  The tone of the article was that the Administration should relent and let the scientists do what they want: “Advocates were outraged by Bush’s second veto and were not mollified by an accompanying Executive Order encouraging the National Institutes of Health to continue to hunt for pluripotent cells that do not entail the destruction of embryos.” 
    3. Adventure stories:  M. Ian Phillips reviewed a stem-cell book for Science.6  Cynthia Fox’s book, Cell of Cells: The Global Race to Capture and Control the Stem Cell, is mostly an adventure story of the global race to tap the stem cell.  Phillips mentions that the Hwang scandal was nearly as disappointing as if Armstrong had been found to fake the moon landing.  In praising the book’s story, he did not mention any cures that have come from ES cells.  Yet he ended with this criticism of the Bush administration and a plea that the show must go on:

      Bush has twice vetoed congressional bills to increase federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.  Cell of Cells illustrates the consequences for global science, states that fund their own researchers, and the dashed hopes of those who need potential treatments.  Fox eloquently chronicles the consequences of this isolationist policy and squarely advocates a rational approach to funding research on both adult and embryonic stem cells.

      His only reference to ethics was after a sad line about “desperate stories of patients with heart failure, autoimmune disease, kidney failure, and Duchenne’s dystrophy.”  Neglecting to mention whether ES cells provide any plausible hope for curing these, he said: “She [Fox] also warns of the trap of unethical, unscientific stem cell treatments in locations such as Moscow, Ukraine, and the Caribbean.”  In other words, Phillips acknowledged that ES hype is leading to abuses, but he neglected to mention the seriously-held moral qualms of many about harvesting human embryos.  Neither did he distinguish between the ethics of ES vs. AS stem cells.

    4. Giving up:  A news item in the same issue of Science7 seems a strange bedfellow to the book review mentioned above.  Dennis Normille reported that a Singapore firm named ES Cell International (ESI) is quitting ES research.  Why?  Investors have decided that “the likelihood of having products in the clinic in the short term was vanishingly small.
          Normille treated this as bad news.  “ESI’s setback may dampen investors’ enthusiasm for stem cell therapies, says Robert Lanza, vice president for R&D at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts: ‘What the field badly needs is one or two success stories.’”  This implies that there have been none.  Indeed, Normille had no success stories to tell: only trials using other techniques that American institutions have “in the pipeline.”  The ex-executive of ESI, Alan Colman, admitted to “a tinge of disappointment that the field is moving more slowly than I had hoped.

1Hashi et al, “Antithrombogenic property of bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells in nanofibrous vascular grafts,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 104: 11915-11920; published online before print July 5 2007, 10.1073/pnas.0704581104.
2Redmond et al, “Behavioral improvement in a primate Parkinson’s model is associated with multiple homeostatic effects of human neural stem cells,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 104: 12175-12180; published online before print June 22 2007, 10.1073/pnas.0704091104.
3Janet Rossant, “Stem cells: The magic brew,” Nature 448, 260-262 (19 July 2007) | doi:10.1038/448260a.
4Lyerly and Faden, “Willingness to Donate Frozen Embryos for Stem Cell Research,” Science, 6 July 2007: Vol. 317. no. 5834, pp. 46-47, DOI: 10.1126/science.1145067.
5Constance Holden, “Stem Cell Science Advances as Politics Stall,” Science, 29 June 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5833, p. 1825, DOI: 10.1126/science.316.5833.1825.
6M. Ian Phillips, “Passage to Global Stem Cells,” Science, 20 July 2007: Vol. 317. no. 5836, p. 322, DOI: 10.1126/science.1146229.
7Dennis Normille, “Singapore Firm Abandons Plans for Stem Cell Therapies,” Science, 20 July 2007: Vol. 317. no. 5836, p. 305, DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5836.305.

Do you ever wonder how the entire international scientific community can seem to be unanimously in favor of Darwinism, unanimously anti-Bush, and all in agreement that humans are to blame for global warming?  Just look at the “official” party line about stem cells.  Certainly there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ethically-sensitive researchers who are pursuing adult stem cells and legitimate therapies to help the afflicted.  They have made great strides.  Why, then, is the editorial staff of Nature, Science and the other spokespersons for Big Science pursuing the vain hope of ES cells, when they have nothing but scandals and empty promises to show for it?
    It is uncanny how they keep pushing their unethical research down the throats of people who think it is wrong to kill one life to save another.  Nobody is even stopping them; they are free to pursue it, if they wish – provided they get their own money.  Instead, they expect the taxpaying public, morally opposed or not, to pay for it.  Why?  Because real investors know how to read the tea leaves, and notice that funding ES research is a bad investment, with a “vanishingly small” hope of success.
    ES advocates rarely mention the arguments of ethicists, and never treat them seriously.  Their appeals are invariably based on selfishness or fraud: Americans will fall behind in the race, the embryos are not really human, and the like.  They make tear-jerking commercials with Hollywood actors pulling on our heartstrings about the afflicted (as if ES stem cells would help), promising cures that don’t exist.  One of the biggest scientific frauds in recent history was committed in the pursuit of ES cells.  All the while, adult stem cell research has been galloping ahead with real results with little fanfare from the media.  This puzzling behavior is documented in detail by Anne Coulter in her book Godless (Crown Forum, 2006), pp. 192-198.
    This is the only explanation that makes sense, and Coulter makes the connection: the same people who abuse science to promote ES research are the same ones opposing intelligent design to promote Darwin’s theory of evolution (p. 198).  The irrational pursuit of an untenable position in one arena characterizes the same godless, materialistic, amoral liberalism that pushes evolution on students.  It’s done in the name – but not the spirit – of science, but requires allegiance to a liberal agenda that cannot tolerate controversy, questioning, or debate (e.g., 07/13/2007).  Let the evidence speak to a candid world.

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