By Wesley J. Smith
During the Great Embryonic Stem Cell Debate, circa 2001-2008, I watched “the scientists” blatantly lie about the supposedly low potential for adult stem cells and the CURES! CURES! CURES that were just around the corner from embryonic stem cells. You remember: Children would soon be out of their wheelchairs and Uncle Ernie’s Parkinson’s would soon be a disease of the past.
The pro-Embryonic Stem Cell Research [ESCR] campaign was filled with so much disinformation and hype — willingly swallowed by an in-the-tank media — all in a corrupt attempt to overturn the minor federal funding restrictions over ESCR imposed by the president, and to hurt President Bush politically.
After the Bush presidency, the issue became quiescent. And now, it turns out that the clinical advances that have been made are not from embryonic stem cells.
During the debate, David A. Prentice — a stem-cell researcher and my good friend — took a sabbatical from his Indiana State University professorship to tout the great potential of adult stem cells (and to oppose human cloning) around the world. He became quite prominent in the debate — for which he was punished by his university’s administration. For example, despite receiving teaching awards, he was moved from graduate classes and his lab privileges were curtailed.
Prentice eventually left and just published a major peer-reviewed article in the science journal Circulation Research, in which he details the amazing successes of adult stem-cell research — demonstrating that the ESCR hypers had it wrong and he had it right.
Prentice outlines the many problems that make embryonic stem cells “ill suited for clinical use.” They include the difficulty of “differentiating and integrating” ES cells into the body, the problem that these cells “have shown evidence of causing arrhythmia,” the potential to cause tumors, and “immunogenicity,” in real people’s language, rejection caused by triggering the body’s immune response.
In contrast, ethical stem cells have had excellent successes. For example, “induced pluripotent stem cells,” which can be made from normal skin cells, are splendid for use in cell modeling and drug testing.
But Prentice’s primary focus is on adult stem cells, often taken from donor bone marrow or a patient’s own body. They have also not advanced as fast as was hoped, but they are progressing into clinical uses and human studies. From, “Adult Stem Cells”:
Not only do adult stem cells carry no ethical baggage regarding their isolation, their practical advantages over pluripotent stem cells have led to many current clinical trials, as well as some therapies approved through all phases of Food and Drug Administration testing.
Peer-reviewed, published successful results abound, with numerous papers now documenting therapeutic benefit in clinical trials and progress toward fully tested and approved treatments. Phase I/II trials suggest potential cardiovascular benefit from bone marrow–derived adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood–derived cells.
Striking results have been reported using adult stem cells to treat neurological conditions, including chronic stroke. Positive long-term progression-free outcomes have been seen, including some remission, for multiple sclerosis, as well as benefits in early trials for patients with type I diabetes mellitus and spinal cord injury. And adult stem cells are starting to be used as vehicles for genetic therapies, such as for epidermolysis bullosa.
If this progress had been derived from embryonic stem cells, the headlines would have been deafening. The cheering from the media would include anchors dancing with pom-poms!
But the media isn’t much interested in reporting adult stem-cell successes prominently because doing so doesn’t promote favored ideological agendas. That’s not good journalism.
The superiority of adult stem cells in the clinic and the mounting evidence supporting their effectiveness in regeneration and repair make adult stem cells the gold standard of stem cells for patients.
That’s excellent news for everyone, and may it continue.
But as we benefit from these ethical treatments, the next time ideologically driven scientists, bioethicists, and their media water carriers seek to drive public opinion on scientific issues in a partisan direction by deploying the propaganda tools of hype, exaggeration, and castigation of those who espouse heterodox views, remember how the Great Stem Cell Debate turned out.
Editor’s note. Wesley’s great columns appear at National Review Online and are reposted with the author’s permission.