Part Two: Refuting Those Who Discredit a Promising Life Science

Friday, May 18, 2007

The last time I wrote about embryonic stem cell research, (eSCR) I gave an overview of Michigan extremist laws. In this part I will discuss some of the claims against embryonic stem cell research. I apologize for the lack of brevity, but it was unavoidable.

Those who are opposed to eSCR believe that the creation and subsequent destruction of an embryo for treatment or research is in violation of their belief that life begins at conception. If opponents of eSCR used this in their opposition, I could not argue with them. That is their belief, and while I disagree with it, they are entitled to their religious freedom. Fortunately for eSCR, this belief reflects the feelings of a relatively small proportion of the population who as a whole have wide-ranging thoughts about when life begins. Since opponents cannot honestly win by advancing their own religious views, they instead attempt to defeat eSCR by attacking the science, attacking the motives of those who advocate for eSCR and attempting to create false hope that there are other, less controversial cures on the horizon.

Those opposing this research make many erroneous, often alarmist, claims about the future of eSCR, all of which have gone unfounded. Some of the most common are debunked below.

The most common lie: adult stem cell research is the most promising type of stem cell research:
Paul Long of the Michigan Catholic Conference, before the House Health Policy Committee said:

"The facts are that nearly 30 years of public and private financing for embryonic stem cell research have failed to produce any positive gains, while advancements with adult stem cells are occurring on a daily basis."
While adult stem cell research has been ongoing for 30 years, it is untrue that eSCR has been ongoing for this time. It wasn't until 1998 that researchers isolated human embryonic stem cells at the University of Wisconsin. ESCR is new research, which is being restricted by federal and state authorities.

The 65 cures lie:
The media doesn't even question this whopper of a lie anymore. Many outlets continue to print that adult stem cells have provided 65 cures for various diseases and conditions. Despite the fact that the 65 cures lie has been debunked by well-respected scientists, it continues to be repeated.

On July 15, 2006 the Washington Post ran a story about three researchers who were calling out David Prentis of the Family Research Cuncil, who stared this part of the disinformation campaign. The Post reported on the scientist's well-documented arguments:

"The claim that there are 65 adult stem cell research cures has been said so many times that it is almost becoming an accepted fact. In the July 28 issue of the magazine Science, William Neaves, president and CEO of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, debunks statements by opponents of embryonic research -- which were created by the Washington-based Family Research Council -- who suggest that more than 65 illnesses can be treated by adult and cord blood stem cells. According to Neaves, only nine illnesses on the research council's widely circulated list have approved adult stem cell treatments."
Most of the diseases cited in the list compiled by Prentis rely on limited clinical trials or observations from patients and doctors, rather than approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Many are experiments, rather than treatments, some of which have taken place overseas.

Dr. Sean Morrison, who runs the University of Michigan adult stem cell lab, pointed out one of the most hypocritical examples in the Prentis-mentioned experiments. Despite Prentis's ties to anti-abortion groups, one procedure on his adult stem cell cures list utilized adult stem cells harvested from fetal tissue that was the product of an abortion.

Don't get me wrong, adult stem cell research is also supported by supporters of eSCR, but it doesn't have the same potential.

There are no restrictions on stem cell research in Michigan:
It is legal to do stem cell research, even on embryonic stem cells, in Michigan, if you create the cells elsewhere and import them into the state. This is where an intermingling of federal rule, Michigan law, patent protection, and practicality make any serious research efforts impossible.

Should your lab receive any federal funding, the stem cell lines must be one of the few federally approved stem cell lines, all of which are ethnically narrow and infected with mouse cells. Since most labs receive some sort of federal funding, they are eliminated from any meaningful research.

If a lab is 100% privately or 100% state funded, they could seek other sources of stem cells. Unfortunately, there is not an adequate source of stem cells from other states to study specific conditions, nor do stem cell lines exist that reflect our diverse population. Also, there are no sources of stem cells from individuals with specific disease we wish to study. Stem cell lines are also protected by patents.

Lastly, in order to treat patents, we must be able to produce stem cells from embryos in this state matching that patient's own DNA. If we cannot, patients will have to go elsewhere for treatment.

There is an adequate source of embryos in Michigan's IVF clinics, which instead of being thrown away should be used for this research. By not allowing stem cells to be created from embryos found here, it is a de-facto ban.

Allowing eSCR and SCNT will allow scientists to "clone and kill":
SCNT stands for Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. It's sometimes called therapeutic cloning and is used to create stem cells with a particular genetic makeup. Make no mistake, that’s where it ends: within the Petri dish. Opponents of the research try to lump eSCR and SCNT together with all types of cloning. Yet all types of cloning are not the same. No human being is the result of SCNT. This is true unless you believe that an embryo that was never fertilized by a sperm and never implanted in a womb is the same is a human. A rogue scientist would have to take SCNT much further and implant the embryo into a surrogate mother to take this toward human reproductive cloning.

We should adopt out embryos to create "snowflake babies":
As I have written, hundreds of thousands of left-over and unsuitable embryos from treatment facilities are destined for the trash can. A few hundred nationwide will be "adopted" and implanted in infertile couples. That said, couples who created them cannot be forced to provide them to prospective women, and many of the embryos cannot be responsibly implanted into a uterus due to defect. Opponents of eSCR rarely propose to ban infertility treatments, which would be the only way to end the creation and subsequent disposal of embryos. Opponents of eSCR also attempted to ban in-vitro procedures decades ago and lost that fight.

A new "breakthrough" prior to every vote:
For the last few years every time there has been a vote in the U.S. Senate, or U.S. Congress authorizing eSCR, there has been a corresponding announcement of a new breakthrough. First was the initial adults stem cell "cures" announcement, then there was a breakthrough in "umbilical cord stem cells". That was followed by the discovery of "amniotic cord blood cells". Most recently, there was a claimed breakthrough using adult stems cells to treat juvenile diabetes.

Unfortunately, none of the above examples were true breakthroughs. All of the types of stem cells mentioned above are really just adult stem cells, all of which have limited uses. Claims of cures for juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's' disease are fictitious or overstated and would surely surprise the millions of people worldwide who continue to suffer from these diseases and conditions.

I could go on and on to fight this fight, but I think you get the point. Opponents of eSCR will stop at nothing to discredit one of the most promising life science humans has ever discovered.

Next time: The economics of stem cell research.


Joe,  5:32 PM  

THANK YOU for this writing. I am SO glad to see other people calling out the Religious Right on their lies.

steves 7:22 PM  

Thanks for the analysis. Like I indicated before, I consider myself to be religious and fairly conservative on many issues, but I am open to the idea of some use of eSCR, even if I am not totally comfortable with it.

Not being a scientist, I rely on others to explain the science behind certain things and if it is valid. In some cases, I can ask a firend that has a science background. Most of the time, I rely on others I do not know. The problem is that some groups, such as religious groups and environmental groups, will use bad science to advance their own adgenda.

I participated in a discussion on the use of DDT in eliminating malaria. To be honest, my participation was limited by ignorance of the subject. Despite that, I discovered that the US ban on DDT was based on pressure from environmental groups. With a little searching, I was able to find out the many of the concerns were contradicted by other reputable studies and that DDT could be used in safe quantities. Despite this, the US, to this day, will not provide funding to anti-malaria programs that use DDT.

So, call me skeptical when it comes to scientific evidence. It is not that I don't believe it, it is that I know scientists can have agendas, too.

Smitty 9:05 PM  

Great article, Bob, as I am now hearing exactly these arguments among legislators in Michigan.

The proposal for escr in Michigan is limited to those cells slated for destruction or unsuitable for implantation. These stem cells will be discarded. I can't fathom a level of discomfort, especially with class-A felonies attached to cloning and prohibitions on providing compensation for donating stem cells.

Rickey Henderson 3:07 PM  

Great looks at the situation. Terrific work there Bob.

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