Stemming the Tide of Misinformation

Chances are you've never heard of Melissa Holley. She's an American teenager whose spinal cord was severed in an auto accident last year, leaving her paraplegic. Today Melissa "has recovered significant motor function in her legs" and regained bladder control, following an injection of immune cells from her own blood into the damaged area of her spinal cord. She's not walking (yet), but the new treatment developed by Proneuron Biotechnologies in Israel marks a startling new advance in restoring function lost by a severe spinal cord injury.

That Melissa's astonishing progress was not front page news may be due to the fact that we're in the middle of a highly politicized debate over federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. With few exceptions, the national media have chosen sides with pro-funding forces. Reporters and columnists have all but ignored astounding research developments involving cells obtained without injury to the donor-- from, e.g., adult human tissue, umbilical cord blood, placentas, and even the brains of cadavers. At the same time they have trumpeted even modest advances using embryonic stem cells--as if cures were suddenly at hand for "incurable" conditions like diabetes, paralysis, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's--and downplayed the negative scientific and ethical aspects of using these cells.

Examples of this media bias were detailed in May by the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a non-partisan, non-profit research organization devoted to the accurate use of scientific and social research in public policy debate.

One example STATS cited was a report that mouse embryonic stem cells had been programmed to secrete insulin, supposedly pointing to a cure for diabetes (Science, April 2001). This received wide and enthusiastic media coverage. But no mention was made of a much more significant development more than a year earlier, in which adult mouse pancreatic stem cells successfully reversed diabetes in the mice (Nature Medicine, March 2000).

And journalists neglected to mention that the mice receiving the embryonic stem cells still died from diabetes (a point which diabetics might find relevant). Nor has there been coverage of further developments here and abroad where ductal tissue from adult human pancreas has produced insulin-secreting islet buds in culture.

Unless you read science journals, you would not know that amazing advances in research using non-embryonic stem cells are occurring rapidly. A few examples:

  • Human patients were successfully treated for heart disease using stem cells from their own arm muscles (The Lancet, Jan. 2001);
  • umbilical cords "offer a vast new source of repair material for fixing brains damaged by strokes or other ills" (Associated Press report);
  • stem cells from the adult bone marrow of rats and mice created new heart muscle cells and blood vessels;
  • UCLA researchers created human bone, cartilage and muscle tissue from human fat stem cells;
  • at the Salk Institute, brain stem cells taken as long as 20 hours after death, from cadavers up to 72 years of age, were induced to proliferate; and,
  • adult bone marrow stem cells can form almost any cell type-liver, nerve, brain, and so on (Science, June 2001).

Such discoveries mean that real cures for debilitating conditions are possible in the foreseeable future.

How many therapeutic successes can scientists point to using embryonic stem cells in clinical trials on humans? Zero. At a June 22 workshop, "Stem Cells and the Future of Regenerative Medicine," sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, the chairman of the Institute's committee studying stem cell research, Bert Vogelstein, M.D. (professor of oncology and pathology and Johns Hopkins University), said all claims of therapeutic benefit from embryonic stem cell research are "conjectural." He added, "there is no experience with embryonic stem cells in humans, and very little in mice."

Marcus Grompe, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics, Oregon Health Sciences University concurred: "There is no evidence of therapeutic benefit from embryonic stem cells."

Why then have the national media, with few exceptions, talked only about advances with embryonic stem cells? Why have they been loathe to admit that embryos are something more than disposable clumps of cells? Maybe they fear that the precarious edifice of abortion rights could topple, and that the great god, Science, may be restrained by "conventional" and "outdated" morality.

The new morality, underlying many editorials, can be reduced to one commandment: The end justifies the means.