Embryonic stem cell fairy tales

Researchers offering misleading promises about nonexistent ES cell cures hurt important work.

We all remember Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” about the emperor who was swindled into believing his new clothing was the finest available. When he paraded through the streets wearing nothing but imaginary apparel, a child cried out, “But he has nothing on at all!”

As a quadriplegic who could possibly benefit from stem cell research, I fear many of us are being sold an imaginary garment of hope – an illusive belief that embryonic stem cells will cure us.

In reality, no such cures exist now or will in the near future. Like the truthful child, we must exclaim, “But there is nothing here at all!”

Stem cells, found in embryos, umbilical cord blood and adults, can change into specialized cell types. Their value lies in replacing diseased or damaged tissues. The University, with its Stem Cell Institute, can be proud of its leadership role in the field of adult stem cell research. In fact, the University was the first to show adult stem cells with the same flexibility as embryonic stem cells.

However, beyond moral objections, embryonic stem cells have serious problems, such as tumor formation, tissue rejection and genetic instability that prevent human use. For more than 20 years, scientists worldwide, using animal embryonic stem cells, have failed to solve these same roadblocks faced by human embryonic stem cell researchers.

On the other hand, adult stem cells and cord blood cells are already being used to safely and effectively treat more than 60 conditions (see www.stemcellresearch.org). Yet, most media seem to downplay these successes while elevating embryonic stem cell cure “potential,” when embryonic stem cells have yet to provide even one safe and effective human treatment.

The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal that favors embryonic stem cell research, recently called such cure headlines “sensationalist” and “hype.” In a June 4 editorial, The Lancet reported, “No safe and effective stem cell therapy will be widely available for at least a decade, and possibly longer.”

Cornell University stem cell scientist Shahin Rafii said, “Just injecting stem cells is not going to work. First, you have to be able to differentiate the cells into functional, transplantable tissues. We don’t really know how to do this yet.”

People who want the government to fund embryonic stem cell research are expecting taxpayers to pay for science projects that knowledgeable investors will not. William Haseltine, embryonic stem cell research advocate and chief executive officer of Human Genome Sciences, said, “The routine utilization of human embryonic stem cells for medicine is 20 to 30 years hence. The timeline to commercialization is so long that I simply would not invest. You may notice that our company has not made such investments.”

Those serious about clinical trials and treatments – not just basic research – are using adult stem cells or cord blood. The Spinal Cord Society, based in Fergus Falls, Minn., has 200 chapters worldwide. The society is on the cutting edge of spinal cord applied research, meaning they’re trying to find treatments that really work.

 The society will be starting human trials using cells from patients’ own nasal cavities. Spinal Cord Society’s leadership said it would use embryonic stem cells “if they worked for us.” But because of embryonic stem cell medical problems, the society is currently pursuing adult stem cells and avoiding embryonic.

Russian scientist Dr. Andrey Brykhovetskii has tried both embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells in his quest for spinal cord injury cure. He has concluded that adult cells are much more effective than embryonic stem cells in restoring function.

After former President Ronald Reagan died, people were led to believe that embryonic stem cells could cure Alzheimer’s disease.

Yet, Alzheimer researcher Michael Shelanski said, “The chance of doing repairs to Alzheimer’s brains by putting in stem cells is small. I personally think we’re going to get other therapies for Alzheimer’s a lot sooner.”

The National Institutes of Health stem cell researcher Ronald D.G. McKay attempted to explain this distortion by telling a Washington Post reporter, “To start with, people need a fairy tale. Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”

We’re watching this fairy tale play out. Like the emperor’s “tailors,” some who want the approval and funding for basic embryonic stem cell research offer misleading promises about nonexistent embryonic stem cell cures. A much happier ending to this story might come by focusing precious resources on adult stem cell and cord blood treatments that already have shown they will work.

Jean Swenson is a University graduate. She welcomes comments at jsw[email protected]. Please send comments to [email protected].