Hyping Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Demonizing Opponents

By Dave Andrusko

I didn’t know until this morning that TIME magazine science writer Alice Park had written a new book, “The Stem Cell Hope.” She’s an excellent writer and I will do my best to not only add it to my lengthy list of “to read” volumes, but actually to read the book cover to cover.

How did Park’s new book come to my attention? I ran across a review in the British publication, “The Economist.” Let me make a couple of observations, for the review is emblematic of the distorted manner in which “stem cells” are covered.

Again, having not read the book I don’t know what Ms. Park’s conclusions are. But I do know that the reviewer lathers down misinformation with additional coats of misdirection.

For example, opposition to harvesting stem cells from human embryos is likened to opposition to [fill in the blank]. But the issue must be addressed on its own terms. Is it morally and ethically acceptable to kill a developing human being for its stem cells—it is not—and are there morally unobjectionable alternatives that are already actually helping patients—there are!

The reviewer launches off into a short tirade over human cloning—as if prospects of human cloning after the birth of Dolly the sheep were silly—and without mentioning what Ian Wilmut, Dolly’s “creator,” subsequently decided. He decided not to pursue a license to clone human embryos having come to the [proper] conclusion that other alternatives were both more likely to succeed and less controversial.

Such tricks are strewn through the review. I will mention just one more. The battle over federal funding of embryonic stem cells began under President George W. Bush—who offered a sensible compromise (no federal money for new stem cell lines)—which President Obama gutted.

But to read the reviewer you would think that private money hadn’t gone into embryonic stem cell research by the bushel full. And the reason there are just now beginning to be trials using human embryonic cells has virtually nothing to do with federal funds and everything to do with the dangers inherent in embryonic stem cells (they tend to proliferate wildly, raising the distant possibility of cancer),their poor prospects, and superior alternatives.

And, by the way, one of Park’s 2010 stories for TIME magazine was outrageously misused by pro-embryonic stem cell researchers. One newspaper bashed opponents by editorializing that “Time magazine last month touted recent advances in stem cell research as one of the world’s ‘10 best shots for tackling our worst problems.’”

But if you took the time to read the TIME magazine article (www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2059521_2059712_2059711,00.html),you find that Park is talking almost exclusively about adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The latter, she writes, consists of “turning back the clock on an already developed cell like one from the skin, bypassing the embryo altogether with four important fountain-of-youth genes that rework the skin cell’s DNA machinery and make it stemlike again.”

Anyway, you get the point. Adult stem cells are the gold standard and all the wishing in the world won’t make embryonic stem cells anything than what they are now: all hype.

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