Another Example of Being Mislead by Outrageous Claims for Embryonic Stem Cells

By Dave Andrusko

One of the stories we wrote about last week that garnered the most response was about 21-year-old Timothy J. Atchison. For whatever combination of reasons Mr. Atchison talked to the Washington Post’s Rob Stein and revealed his identity as the  first patient to receive an infusion of a drug made of human embryonic stem cells. Up to that point in time, his identity had been a closely guarded secret.

I strongly suspected there would be a follow up, and, sure enough, Part Two ran Friday under the headline,” Stem cells were God’s will, says first recipient of treatment.”

Let me offer two quotes from Mr. Stein’s story:

“It’s not life. It’s not like they’re coming from an aborted fetus or anything like that. They were going to be thrown away,” [Atchison] said. “Once they explained to me where the stem cells were coming from, once I learned that, I was okay with it.”


“I caution people: Don’t expect miracles that these patients are going to automatically jump out of their wheelchairs and run all over the place,” said Daniel Heumann, who is on the board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

What no doubt made the situation irresistible to Stein and his editors at the Post is that “Atchison’s story reveals provocative insights into one of the most closely watched medical experiments, including what some might see as irony: that a treatment condemned on moral and religious grounds is viewed by the first person to pioneer the therapy, and by his family, as part of God’s plan.”

What to say? Lots, but not at the expense of Mr. Atchison, who clearly is a man of faith and boundless determination, and who received bum—nay, deeply misleading–information.  

When he awoke from his car accident, paralyzed from the chest down, Atchison prayed, asking for forgiveness and thanking God for saving his life, and also promising to live for God and nothing else. ’ I never got down after that,” he told Stein. “I figure that’s what must have kept me up — God keeping me up.”

Stein writes, “That sense of destiny propelled Atchison when he faced another shock just seven days later: Doctors asked him to volunteer to be the first person to have an experimental drug made from human embryonic stem cells injected into his body.”

The nub of the story is how Atchison persuaded himself that this highly experimental ‘therapy’ was okay and how others who had deep reservations about abortion came to agree—or at least not voice objections!

It appears there are two explanations.

In his second semester as a nursing student Atchison “had heard about embryonic stem cells’ potentially revolutionary power to morph into almost any tissue in the body, as well as their infamy because days-old embryos had been destroyed to get them. ‘I didn’t know as much about it then as I know now. I did know that stem cells could be used to cure all kinds of things,’ Atchison said, swiveling in his wheelchair, which, like his car and many other belongings, is the University of Alabama football team’s crimson. ‘I was thinking like 50 years down the road or something like that.’”

In other words, he had bought the case for embryonic stem cell research hook, line, and sinker.

But besides having been primed by stories of miraculous cures, Atchison was told that the stem cells would come from fertility clinics.

“It’s not life. It’s not like they’re coming from an aborted fetus or anything like that. They were going to be thrown away,” he said. “Once they explained to me where the stem cells were coming from, once I learned that, I was okay with it.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, these human embryos ARE life; that some would/could be implanted in other women if the woman whose ova were fertilized to produce the embryos had chosen not to implant them in their own womb; and that “they’re going to die anyway” is a rationale for unlimited evil. (We’re already seeing a major push to extract organs from patients who are about to starved and dehydrated to death.)

But he’s just a kid. How about the elders?

The pastor of a local church befriended Atchison, and after “sort[ing] out his own stance” announced his approval—it “was acceptable because the cells were obtained from embryos that had never been implanted in a womb and so had no chance of developing into a fetus”–to his congregation.

He told Stein, “I am adamantly against abortion in any form. It did cause me some searching and researching biblically what is the proper answer,” adding, “I don’t really see a baby’s life was destroyed for this to take place.”

Given the way the situation was explained, it is not hard to believe that the town, which had already rallied behind the family, voiced no objections.

Two quick concluding thoughts. First, this story, like Stein’s piece last week, contained a quick by-the-numbers rundown of most everything that’s wrong with this experiment.

“Some worry that not enough basic studies and tests were done in animals before injecting cells into recently paralyzed patients. Many fret that the cells could be harmful, with the biggest dangers being that they might cause tumors or tortuous pain. Still others wonder whether patients who are struggling to come to terms with a devastating injury can make that kind of risky decision just two weeks after such a trauma.

“Many proponents fear that if something goes wrong — or even if the cells fail to show any sign of helping patients — it could be a major blow for the field at a time when federal funding for the research is under attack in courts and Congress.”

Second, adding to Atchison’s sense that “It was meant to be” is that the young man “thinks he might be feeling the first signs that the cells are helping him” six months after the treatment.

But, of course, there is absolutely no reason to believe that is true.

Even in rodents, “improvements” did not occur for nine months. Moreover, “Spinal-cord injury experts stress that patients such as Atchison can regain some sensation and movement on their own and that it is impossible to know whether the cells are helping based on a single subject,” Stein writes.

Which is why advocates such as Daniel Heumann, who is on the board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and quoted above, are far more cautious.

The irony here, of course, is the famous 2004 quote from John Kerry’s vice presidential running mate, John Edwards, gushing equally over Kerry and what embryonic stem cells would supposedly accomplish.

Edwards said of Kerry that he “was a powerful voice for the need to do stem cell research and change the lives of people like him [actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in a riding accident]. “If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

We very much wish that Timothy Atchison experiences a full recovery. But if that does come to pass, there is no reason to believe it had anything to do with embryonic stem cells.

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