- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

In 1932, Albert Einstein stated: “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”

Einstein’s firm prediction had to yield just a few years later to advances in both the state of the technology and the mathematics required for nuclear reaction. Thereafter, the actual ability to split the atom for military purposes — a use that Einstein, a pacifist, sought to forestall forever — was confirmed by successful experiments conducted by Nazi Germany. When Einstein found this out, he didn’t deny the science: He went to Roosevelt with a collaborative plan to ensure America got the bomb first.

Science surprises more than it reassures. The breakthroughs and insights of today disappoint more than they lead to a bold new future. And the most dogmatic assertions about the future of a particular scientific principle or theory often — as Einstein’s claim suggests — wind up just being bad predictions. Vindication or confirmation rarely occur at the time or circumstance of our choosing.

For these reasons, the sense of urgency pulsing through the debate over whether to use federal research funds on new lines of stem cells derived from embryos must be taken in context. The media and those who support such funding would have us believe that such support is critical, because without it “miracle cures” for diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s will never emerge. Those who oppose it would attribute the same value to adult stem cells as those emerging from embryonic sources.

We have heard the claim for miracle cures before. Interferon was going to be a cure for cancer and infectious diseases. It is actually an effective treatment for both but has been rivaled or surpassed in some cases by other medicines. Gene therapy (of which stem-cell therapy is actually an elegant version) was going to allow us to remove disease-causing genes and replace them with “normal” sequences in a matter of years. But we are still struggling in clinical trials nearly 10 years later. As the saying goes about cancer research, there are millions of mice cured of cancer. Unfortunately, the same drugs often fail to work in people.

Stem cells — adult or otherwise — possess no magical qualities exempting them from the same challenges and surprises. The ultimate goal of stem-cell research is to understand and isolate the mechanisms that cause cells to regenerate. It is no shock therefore that teams of researchers are now developing methods of producing stem cells that are not derived from embryos or require destruction of embryos.

Similarly, the ability to use stem cells from any source for regenerative purposes is far from ready for prime time. Only a handful of companies are actually using stem cells in clinical trials with humans. Will they work in the long term without being rejected by the organ or body? Will the therapy be more or less effective than alternative treatments?

Several state and major universities are setting up stem-cell research centers endowed with much more money than the National Institutes of Health is spending on stem-cell science today. Yet, all these efforts smell more like politics than science.

Collaboration is critical. For even if researchers come up with a way to produce enough stem cells in a safe and noninvasive way for widespread clinical trials, much work will remain ahead. Developing a method for “controlling” stem cells so they act in predictable ways with minimal side effects over a person’s lifetime is the key to progress here, as it is with any other drug or device.

This is equivalent to splitting the atom at will. But I wonder if anyone is willing to work together to get this done. In the current climate, even scientists are inclined to posture instead of postulate what evidence dictates. They often act less like Einstein and more like politicians.

Robert Goldberg is vice president for strategic initiatives for the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

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