Washington Post editorial hypes embryonic stem cells again, caught up in latest “big payoff”


By Dave Andrusko

Felicia Pagliuca, Ph.D.

Felicia Pagliuca, Ph.D.

Well, you have to give the Washington Post’s editorial lauding the supposedly now-realized “potential” of embryonic stem cells, this much: they did spell the most prominent author’s name correctly. After that, not so much.

Last Thursday Dr. David Prentice explained what a group of Harvard researchers, led by Dr. Douglas Melton, actually found, as opposed to the reckless hyperbole cranked out by in-house media at Harvard and sympathetic outlets, like the Washington Post. We’ll weave his insights into our rebuttal of some of the many misrepresentations of what the Post labeled a “big payoff” in treating Type I (juvenile) diabetes.

It is true, as the Post writes, that Melton et al. “painstakingly exposed stem cells to various chemicals until they figured out which ingredients to use and in which order, finally inducing undifferentiated stem cells to become beta cells, which specialize in detecting rises in blood sugar and releasing insulin in response.”

However, as Dr. Prentice explained, there was only an incremental improvement in producing these insulin-producing cells–what Melton’s team called SC-ß cells. They produced batches of these cells from both “human embryonic stem cells (hESC, which require the destruction of a young human being) and from human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSC, the stem cells created from normal skin cells, without using embryos),” Prentice wrote.

Now besides not even acknowledging that there were sources other than embryonic stem cells, the clear implication of the editorial is the results from stem cells from human embryos were superior. Not so.

Dr. David Prentice

Dr. David Prentice

“The results were equivalent no matter the starting cell type,” Dr. Prentice explained. “So for any future production of SC-ß cells, the authors have shown that no embryonic stem cells are necessary” (my emphasis).

The Post editorial, of course, took its obligatory shot at former President George W. Bush.

After the Harvard team reported its findings in the journal Cell, its leader, Doug Melton, pointedly thanked the philanthropists who donated to his project. The George W. Bush administration, he noted, had ruled out federal funding for embryonic stem cell research except on a few lines of cells that were already in use. The Obama administration correctly reversed that policy shortly after coming to office.

Just so we’re clear. As columnist Charles Krauthammer explained back in 2009 when Obama reversed the Bush policy, seven and a half-years before President Bush had delivered a national address on embryonic stem cells that was scrupulously fair, giving the best case for both proponents of their use and opponents. (This, by the way, was during a period of time when the hyperbole about what embryonic stem cells could supposedly do was everywhere. Opponents were depicted as heartless zealots.)

President Bush “restricted” federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to cells derived from embryos that had already been destroyed (as of his speech of Aug. 9, 2001),” Krauthammer wrote.

By contrast Obama’s address was unserious, unreflective, and showed total unawareness of where (in Krauthammer’s words) the “protean power of embryonic manipulation” could take us.

Finally, the Post concludes,

“Embryonic stem cells have been the ‘gold standard’ in research to date, lead study author Felicia Pagliuca explained. Scientists haven’t established that non-embryonic stem cells are as useful. ‘We don’t know what we don’t know’ about them, she said. Until they do, it is crucial that scientists preserve the flexibility to explore the huge potential of stem cell research.”

I’ll take the Post at its word that Pagliuca said (presumably to the Post), “We don’t know what we don’t know’ about them,” referring to non-embryonic stem cells; I couldn’t find that comment anywhere other than in the Post editorial.

Then there is the sentence that came before Pagliuca’s quote, which is presumably either a paraphrase of the thinking behind her quote or the Post’s own conclusion: “Scientists haven’t established that non-embryonic stem cells are as useful.” Let’s deconstruct that.

First, as the Post concedes in its opening paragraph, before the study results reported in “Cell,” while proponents have fallen all over themselves touting the great “potential” of embryonic stem cells, “[U]ntil now the scientists didn’t have many big payoffs to tout.”

But as we noted above, lost in the shuffle (as Dr. Prentice pointed out) is that Melton et al. had used both human embryonic stem cells and human induced pluripotent stem cells. The results were equivalent no matter the starting cell type,” Dr. Prentice wrote. “So for any future production of SC-ß cells, the authors have shown that no embryonic stem cells are necessary.”

In combination with Dr. Pagliuca’s quote, this glaring omission in the Post editorial also implies that there have been no successes using human induced pluripotent stem cells. That simply isn’t true. See nrlc.cc/1vnvZLX , nrlc.cc/1sxYEvF , nrlc.cc/1sxZ6tM ; and nrlc.cc/1xKZHbQ .

Finally, the “gold standard” idiom. There are two problems.

I do not pretend to be a scientist, but I am familiar enough with Dr. Prentice’s work to know that the real “gold standard” is the capability to stop the underlying cause of Type I diabetes–your immune system attacking the insulin-secreting cells. This would allow for the regeneration of insulin-secreting beta cells by the normal pancreas.

As Dr. Prentice explained last week, the promise to date in this field is the use of adult stem cells, for example cord blood-derived adult stem cells.

In the meanwhile, the science is not just about dealing with diabetes, juvenile or adult. If we are talking about what is helping patients around the world now, the real gold standard among stem cells is neither embryonic stem cells nor human induced pluripotent stem cells. It is adult stem cells, isolated from many different tissues, including bone marrow, blood, muscle, fat, and umbilical cord blood.

As Dr. Prentice explained in an article written for NRL News, these cells come from a patient or a healthy donor and does not require harming or destroying the adult stem cell donor. “Over 60,000 people around the globe are treated each year with adult stem cells, because adult stem cells have a proven record at saving lives and improving health.”

You get my point. Too bad the Post—which is deeply invested in the hype over embryonic stem cells—couldn’t wait to pull the trigger.