January 2, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Embryonic Stem Cell Advocates Push Against Evidence and Ethics

An old preacher said, “It’s never right to do wrong to get a chance to do right.”  That sums up in simple terms the ethical problems of using embryonic stem cells to cure human diseases, apparent in this quote from PhysOrg:

The potent but hotly debated cells can transform into nearly any cell in the human body, opening a path toward eliminating such ills as Parkinson’s disease, paralysis, diabetes, heart disease, and maybe even the ravages of aging.
    And more human experiments are on the way as scientists refine new methods to get around the controversy that surrounds embryonic stem cell research, which has generated controversy because it involves the destruction of early human life.

But did that ethical quandary, and the lack of any cures (“opening a path toward…”) cause the reporter to call for a stop to the research?  Not in the slightest.  The article was upbeat and positive about companies charging ahead into the ethical minefield.  It quoted Bob Lanza, chief scientist at Advanced Cell Technology, in a positive light: “After a decade of intense controversy, the field is finally ready to start proving itself and to actually start helping patients suffering from a range of horrific diseases.”  ACT is getting ready to start a treatment for blindness, while Geron Corporation is going to try ES cells on spinal cord injuries.
    “The major concern with stem cell therapies is that the transforming cells could form tumors.”  That relegates the issue of killing human embryos to a minor concern.  Surprisingly, the article continued by reporting on remarkable new advances with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) that have no ethical issues.  Apparently, however, the ES trials will go marching on anyway.  Science Daily, meanwhile, reported on both ES and iPS cells, not even mentioning the controversies with the former.
    On Christmas Eve in Science,1 Greg Miller published a disturbing article about California’s Proposition 71 (2004) that authorized $3 billion in taxpayer funds to promote research on embryonic stem cells.  In “CIRM, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Miller described how the proposition was the brainchild of Robert Klein, who spearheaded the initiative and then became director of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) that resulted.  Earlier in the month, Nature News profiled Klein as a string-pulling millionaire lawyer who pretty much bilked California voters, against the outcries of political and religious leaders, to fund ES cells because he was concerned about his son’s diabetes and thought they might provide a cure.  Six years later, the voters have little return on investment with another 2/3 of the approved funds still to be spent by a bankrupt state government.

Klein’s critics say his promotion of stem cells’ therapeutic promise was zealous and oversimplified.  He “left voters with the impression that people will be jumping out of their wheelchairs and not being diabetic within a year”, says John Simpson, a long-time observer and critic of the agency’s governance, who is at the consumer-advocacy group Consumer Watchdog based in Santa Monica, California.  “There’s been this constant compulsion for [Klein] to say, ‘See, we’re delivering, we’re delivering’, and that’s something that’s haunted him throughout the whole thing.”

Describing Klein’s tactics to sell the initiative, reporter Elie Dolgin wrote, “Klein teamed up with several other affluent and politically savvy parents of diabetic children – including movie director Jerry Zucker and his wife Janet, and home developer Tom Coleman and his wife Polly – and the ‘three families’, as they called themselves, together with political consultants and lawyers, devised a ballot initiative that would ask California taxpayers to support stem-cell science to the tune of around $300 million per year for ten years.”  Dolgin continued, describing the “star-studded campaign endorsed by the likes of Brad Pitt, Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox and state governor Arnold Schwarzenegger” that pulled on public heartstrings to get the vote.  Klein, a rich lawyer with experience as a financier, wrote the job description for the director of the institute to match his own qualifications (“Scientific expertise is not a requirement,” Dolgin noted), raising concerns when he took the lead.  He is still serving after his six-year term expired.
    “Controversy is nothing new for CIRM,” Miller said in his Science article as he described conflicts of interest, infighting, and “fundamentally flawed” selection of leaders that led one former insider to call it the “CIRM circus”.  Miller wrote, “Watchdog groups have blasted the institute about what they see as exorbitant staff salaries and conflicts of interest on the board.  And patient advocates are tired of waiting for the stem cell cures they feel they were promised during the campaign.
    In an article devoid of any news about actual cures or progress, Miller quoted a stem cell researcher in Michigan saying,

“The ‘yes’ vote on Prop. 71 changed the world.  Prior to that, the conversation in most states was, ‘Should we allow embryonic stem cell research?’” Morrison says.  “But once California put that stake in the ground, the conversation shifted to, ‘How do we keep up with California?’

Meanwhile, researchers are giddy over the taxpayer-funded windfall: “I just moved into a spectacular new building,” one researcher gloated, apparently unconcerned about the embryos whose brief lives will be snuffed out inside.

1.  Greg Miller, “Regenerative Medicine: CIRM: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Science, 24 December 2010: Vol. 330 no. 6012 pp. 1742-1743, DOI: 10.1126/science.330.6012.1742.

Scientists are sinners, too.  We all need repentance and redemption.  That’s what regenerative medicine should be about.

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