Sunday, November 14, 2004

Among the magazines even diehard right-wingers should sometimes read are the neo-liberal ones the New Republic and the Washington Monthly. They often have thoughtful articles with stimulating fresh thinking. Alas that makes it all the worse when they publish something moldier than a slab of Roquefort cheese. So it is with their current combined attack on adult stem cell research, designed to support the alternative of embryonic stem cells.

Adult stem cells come from all over the body, plus umbilical cords and placentas. Embryonic stem cells come from pulling apart human embryos, and thus have aroused ethical concerns. The result, says Chris Mooney in the Washington Monthly, is that “conservatives have latched onto fringe science in order to advance moral arguments” by embracing adult stem cell research. We are presented with the illogical argument that since some people prefer adult stem cells for nonscientific reasons, they must have little scientific value.

Yet adult stem cells have actually been used therapeutically in the United States since 1968. At the Web site of you’ll find a list, far from comprehensive, of almost 80 therapies using them. This is treatment, not practice or theory. Amazingly, there are also more than 250 adult stem cell clinical trials.

In contrast, there are zero treatments using embryonic stem cells. Clinical trials involving embryonic stem cells? Zero.

Embryonic stem cell propagandists will tell you adult stem cell research had a huge head start and embryonic stem cells only need time (and more importantly, massive government funding) to catch up.

Yet as a new book called “The Proteus Effect” notes, both types of stem cell research date back a half-century. You might think the author of the New Republic piece, Harvard Professor of Medicine Jerome Groopman, would know this since ostensibly his contribution is a review of the book. Research with embryonic stem cells has progressed at snail’s pace simply because they are so terribly difficult to work with.

Ironically, some of the very diseases he says embryonic stem cells may conquer have long been treated with adult stem cells. Dr. Groopman specifically mentions Fanconi’s Anemia, but it was first treated with umbilical cord stem cells 16 years ago.

The only possible advantage of embryonic stem cells is potential. “It’s well established that embryonic stem cells can generate any kind of tissue found in the body,” Mr. Mooney writes flatly. “There is no disagreement among experts about the capacity of [ESCs] to form any and all cells and tissues of the body,” Dr. Groopman declares. Translation: Disagree with Dr. Groopman and you’re not an expert.

But we already know embryonic cells cannot generate placental tissue. The President’s Council on Bioethics, in its January 2004 report, observes, “Embryonic stem cells are capable of becoming many different types of differentiated cells if stimulated to do so in vitro [outside the body].” However, “it is not known for certain that human embryonic stem cells in vitro can give rise to all the different cell types of the adult body.”

Meanwhile, three different labs have found three different adult stem cells that may be transformable to all cell types. “In aggregate, our study and various others do support the idea that one [ASC] can give rise to all types of tissue,” said Ira Black, head of one of those labs.

Or perhaps we don’t need a “one-size-fits-all” cell. Scientists have discovered at least 14 different types of adult stem cells. Even if each has limited plasticity, combined they could perhaps be reprogrammed into each type of mature cell we need.

So when Dr. Groopman says adult marrow cells may not be “fully optimal as treatment for many fatal diseases,” he is ignoring at least 13 other adult stem cells that could be.

Almost “every other week there’s another interesting finding of adult [stem] cells turning into neurons or blood cells or heart muscle cells,” notes molecular biologist Eric Olson at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Unfortunately, it seems every other week there’s also another article in the popular press claiming adult stem cells range from nearly worthless to utterly worthless.

Ironically, the original motivation for the massive disinformation campaign is precisely the relative scientific superiority of adult stem cells. Savvy venture capitalists have plowed their money into adult stem cell research and treatment, leaving embryonic stem cell researchers desperate to feed at the government trough. It is they and their supporters who have latched onto fringe science.

Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, a nationally syndicated columnist with Scripps Howard News Service, and author of “BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing our World.”

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