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The Stem Cell Hype Machine

The Top Five Over-Hyped Claims About Stem Cell Research

SOURCE: AP Photo/Andy Manis A technician shows off a vial that contains about 1 million viable human embryonic stem cells from one stem cell line. WiCell, a stem cell bank funded by the National Institutes of Health, is a clearinghouse meant to distribute human embryonic stem cells approved by the Bush administration.

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research have too often engaged in hype about cures. Well, now that I have your attention, let’s get all the hype about embryonic stem cell research out on the table.

I say this because I was a little surprised to recently find myself the object of an Internet tempest for a few days over an interview I did with my friend, conservative political theorist Robert George of Princeton University. Robbie, with whom I disagree about many things but deeply respect for his willingness to engage in honest debate, understood what I had to say and knew I said so prior to this interview. Apparently, other critics of stem cell research had chosen to ignore my caustic comments about some proponents overpromising cures over the years.

In the interview I said many scientists and their supporters favoring public funding of embryonic stem cell research had gone too far in hyping the prospects of rapid cures following right on the heels of generous government funding. They did. My saying so, however, was hardly the news The American Spectator, First Things, and other electronic conservative outlets made it out to be.

Anyone who has followed my advocacy for embryonic stem cell research would know I have long been critical of claims that funding today means people tomorrow will leap from their wheelchairs and walk. This is me in 2006 describing overpromising of embryonic stem cell research in Wired: “There’s big expectations, a lot of hype.” And saying the same thing at greater length two years ago: “There has been hype and overpromising. … I don’t know if stem cell research will work, I think it’s very interesting, I support doing it, but I think you have to be honest and say there’s a small chance nothing will work.”

I then explained why the hype had grown so loud:

There was such a bitter battle over funding, so one side was screaming that you can’t kill embryos to try and save people and in response, the defenders of stem cell research began to say, ‘look, if you would let us do this research we can save lives. … it was in the heat of that political battle to score points that they [proponents] overstated the case.”

Having lived during the 1990s when the hype machine was spinning full throttle about the curative powers of gene therapy, the clinical wonders that would quickly follow from mapping the human genome, and the frothy promise that genetically engineering plants would quickly cash out in the form of fortified foods such as golden rice that would rapidly solve the nutritional deficiencies of the world’s poor, I am keenly sensitive to the kind of overpromising that occurs when a novel form of science is in search of public funding. The fact that the fight over public funding of embryonic stem cell research had the critics screaming “murder” regarding the destruction of human embryos evoked even more overwrought language from proponents about the speedy cures lying right around the corner.

Since everyone for some reason now seems very interested in coming clean about hype in the embryonic stem cell debate, I thought I might take a quick tour of five of the most outrageous, overhyped claims by critics that have characterized what has passed for debate during the years since George W. Bush addressed the nation from the Rose Garden in 2001 to offer his “compromise” position over public funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Hyped claim #5: The Bush “compromise”

The president tried to offer a “compromise” about government funding of embryonic stem cell research. Government funds could be spent on stem cell lines made from human embryos prior to August 9, 2001, but nothing else. The president said there were cell lines available from 64 embryos for which consent had been obtained to use them in research.

Except there were not. Some of the cell lines were owned by non-U.S. companies who would not share them. Some of the cell lines did not grow well. Some of the cell lines had been generated without informed consent from anyone. What was touted as a brilliant “solution” by many conservatives and not a few middle-of-the-road commentators was nothing more than a ban dressed up as a compromise.

Hyped claim #4: Adult stem cells can do it all

The number of antiembryonic stem cell researchers offering up this bit of hype are legion. The argument goes that since adult stem cells have been used to cure many people while embryonic stem cells have not, there is no need to pursue embryonic stem cell research. Father Thad Pacholczyk, often quoted in right-wing circles, who is a staunch critic of embryonic stem cell research, offered one of a zillion such examples in 2006 of why there is no need to pursue embryonic stem cell research, because there are “dozens of diseases currently treatable using these [adult] stem cells, including sickle-cell anemia, leukemia, spinal cord injury, and heart disease.”

I am not sure what he was talking about regarding spinal cord injuries, which as far as I know remain completely incurable, but it is true that bone marrow transplants have cured a lot of children and adults. And bone marrow is a type of adult stem cell. That is where the truth of this claim ends and the hype begins.

The research behind bone marrow transplantation began in the 1950s. It received generous government grant support for the next 50 years. It still does. Embryonic stem cells were first discovered in 1998. Research involving those cells has received minimal funding from any source since then. As Robert George forthrightly said in our discussion, it is just dishonest not to concede that you are giving up a key line of research if you don’t fund embryonic stem cell work by pretending you know that it can be completely replaced by adult stem cell research.

Hyped claim #3: If embryonic stem cell research is so promising, then why isn’t private research behind it?

A typical example of this absurd claim appeared in The Wall Street Journal where Richard Miniter opined in 2001:

Of the 15 US biotech companies solely devoted to developing cures using stem cells, only two focus on embryos. Embryo stem cell research is at the drawing-board stage – not for lack of funds but for lack of promising research to finance. Venture capitalists have no agenda beyond making money; if they see embryo projects that are likely to bear fruit over the next five to seven years – the usual VC time horizon – they will fund them. That the market is speaking so loudly against embryo stem cell research probably explains why embryo researchers are so eager to reverse the ban on government funding.

It has been echoed in the conservative right-wing blogsphere ever since.

This is hype in a very pure form. No venture capitalist or firm is going to back research in a big way that (a) is just starting out, (b) does not yet understand the basic science involved, and (c) has elicited huge opposition from the then-president of the United States and his supporters in Congress. Governments fund basic, early-stage research. The U.S. government has long been the 100-pound gorilla of such funding. It is only later, as commercial possibilities emerge, that the private sector gets really interested. Keep the NIH out of funding basic stem cell research and few private dollars will flow no matter how promising that line of research might be.

Hyped claim #2: IPS cells are the magical solution to the embryonic stem cell quandary

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer led the hype machine on this subject. Back in 2007 an announcement was made that researchers in Japan had discovered how to reprogram adult skin cells to resemble embryonic stem cells. Krauthammer immediately declared Bush had been right to ban public funds for embryonic stem cell research (I thought that had been a “compromise”) since there was now a way to create “a magical stem cell that can become bone or brain or heart or liver” without using human embryos. Magical—really? Could there be any claim more fraught with hype then declaring that any biomedical discovery is ready to go right out of the lab to your doctor’s office?

Making adult cells into embryo-like cells remains the current darling of critics of research involving embryos. But the technique is barely understood and its safety is a huge concern to those working in the area. Not only was it hype to declare in 2007 that the game was over for embryonic stem cells or even to continue to say in 2011 that there is no need to pursue embryonic stem cell research (note, by the way, no cures from IPS—five years and counting) is nothing less than unadulterated hype driven by an agenda utterly disconnected from the nascent state of the science.

Hyped claim #1: Frozen embryos should be put up for adoption rather than used as sources of stem cell lines

The meshugana lawsuit that Dr. James Sherley, a biological engineer at Boston Biomedical Research Institute who works on adult stem cells, has brought is currently holding up NIH funding of expanded embryonic stem cell research. Sherley implausibly argues that permitting more funding for research on stem cells derived from human embryos would harm his work by increasing competition for federal funding.

What has been forgotten about this suit is that it was originally joined by an adoption agency called Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which argued that expanding funding for research on embryos obtained from fertility clinics reduces the number available for use in adoption.

Now the Nightlight folks got the axe from a federal judge and were kicked out of the lawsuit. What needs to be remembered, though, is that far too many critics of embryonic stem cell research, including President Bush, advance adoption and continue to do so as if it were an alternative to either the destruction of embryos at fertility clinics or the use of abandoned frozen ones in research.

This is Bush in 2005: “There’s an alternative to the destruction of life, with little babies being born as a result of the embryos that had been frozen.”

Now I am very sensitive on the matter of unwanted embryos left behind at fertility clinics. In 1999 I published a paper with George Annas and Sherman Elias, “Stem Cell Politics, Ethics and Medical Progress,” in which we first outlined the ethical case for using unwanted frozen embryos at infertility clinics as the true compromise position about where to obtain embryos for stem cell research. It was a good idea then and remains so now.

There have been about 50 reported adoptions of frozen embryos from infertility clinics in the past five years. Few will have any interest in using embryos from couples having infertility problems to try and have a child. And the whole point of using infertility treatment in the first place is to create a genetic tie between the child and one or both parents. Knowing there are hundreds of thousands of unwanted frozen embryos in clinics today means pointing to adoption as an “alternative” to their use in research is utter hype.

While I am on this particular bit of hype, I should add that those who do not favor the use of unwanted and certain-to-be-destroyed frozen embryos languishing in clinics worldwide never ever say what they propose be done with them. Conservatives say destruction is unthinkable, however, since it is inevitable then what are they talking about? ( I suppose this constitutes hypocrisy and not hype.)

There is plenty more hype to be had from what has passed as debate over the past decade or so since human embryonic stem cells were first isolated. I don’t mean to suggest that most of the hype has come from critics rather than proponents. I do mean to suggest, however, that those who live in very fragile houses often constructed of hype ought not be quick to cast stones.

Arthur Caplan, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Bioethics and the Sidney D. Caplan Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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