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The “Wrong” Cure
Adult stem cells get the shaft.


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Wesley J. Smith

Members of the liberal media elite have become rather choosy when it comes to advocating stem-cell cures for degenerative medical conditions. To these commentators, cures using adult stem cells just aren’t the “right” cures. For stem-cell therapy to really count, it has to come from embryos. Indeed, even the most astonishing research advances using adult cells are ignored by these arbiters of public policy as if they never happened. And since liberal elites dominate public discourse in the stem-cell debate, the American people remain generally unaware of these astonishing scientific advances.

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No media personality epitomizes the elite liberal media mindset more than CNN’s Larry King. It thus came as no surprise that King cared nothing about adult-stem-cell research breakthroughs when the noted artist, evangelist, and disability-rights activist Joni Eareckson Tada raised the issue in an August interview.

Tada has been quadriplegic since breaking her back in a diving accident at age 17. In recent years, she has become an outspoken opponent of human cloning and of federally funded embryonic-stem-cell research. It was in this context that Tada accepted King’s offer to introduce her to Christopher Reeve, the paralyzed former movie star who has become the world’s most famous advocate for using human cloning and embryonic stem cells to find cures:

King: He [Reeve] thinks he’s going to walk.

Tada: That may very well happen using incredible therapies…using adult-stem-cell research. It is absolutely amazing what is happening. Dr. Carlos Lima in Lisbon, Portugal, has helped restore bladder and muscle control to people with paralysis using stem cells from their own nasal tissue.

Take a moment and think about what Tada told King. Paralyzed people with serious spinal injuries like those afflicting Tada and Reeve have regained feeling in their bodies using adult-tissue therapies. Assuming that King was unaware of these advances–always a good assumption, given that King prides himself on not preparing for interviews–he should have been thunderstruck by this big news. Tada’s assertion should have prompted an immediate follow-up question demanding more details. Had King done this, Tada might have then told him that one of the paralyzed women treated by Dr. Lima with her own olfactory tissue had recently appeared before a Senate subcommittee and presented videos of herself walking with braces!

But King never even attempted to follow up. Indeed, he wasn’t the least bit curious about the tremendous news that human patients with serious spinal-cord injury may be able to walk again if these early human trials using adult tissue pan out. Instead, almost reflexively, he promoted embryonic-stem-cell research, stating, “Everyone says it will be faster if embryonic is also used. Nancy Reagan is going to campaign strongly for that.”

Tada told King patiently that she opposes embryonic-stem-cell research, in part because she advocates channeling scarce resources “into [adult] therapies which have the most promise, which are the most effective.” She then told King about the dangers associated with embryonic stem cells of which he might be unaware, such as tissue rejection and tumors.

King shrugged this off, asserting that problems always happen in the beginning of research studies. “That’s true,” Tada acknowledged. And then she tried again to get King to just hear how far adult-tissue research has already advanced. “Right now,” she said, “incredible therapies” are happening “with their own stem cells, whether dental pulp or nasal tissues, or bone-marrow tissues.”

For a second time in two minutes Tada had presented King with the opportunity to provide his audience with a wonderful educational opportunity. Had he followed up, even skeptically, by demanding that Tada give examples of these incredible breakthroughs, she could have told him about human heart patients who have already benefited from treatment with their own bone marrow or blood stem cells. She could have given great hope to people with Parkinson’s disease by describing the successes already achieved treating patients with adult cells and their derivatives. Perhaps she would have mentioned the wonderful news that in an early human trial, a patient with multiple sclerosis so advanced that he experienced bouts of blindness appears to have been put into almost total remission using his own stem cells.

But King’s viewing audience was not allowed to learn any of this, because King did not inquire. Instead, he demanded to know who is harmed by embryonic-stem-cell research and asked whether she would agree to debate Christopher Reeve. Then, it was quickly on to other matters. Clearly, for King, stem-cell medical advances only count if they come from embryonic sources.

King is not alone in this incredibly myopic approach to the stem-cell debate. Other elite liberal commentators are just as narrow in their views about adult-stem-cell research. For example, Laura Bush’s recent defense of her husband’s stem-cell policy sent several elite liberal commentators into apoplectic orbit. Cynthia Tucker’s August 13 syndicated column, “Bush’s Policy on Stem-Cell Research Has No Good Defense,” was especially nasty–and typically ignorant of the current state of the science.

Charging that only religious extremism stands in the way of stem-cell advances, Tucker accused the president of limiting research “that could…lead to cures for Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and even some cancers. Some of those cures could be decades away. But we can’t get there until we get started.”

Tucker either didn’t take the time to discover, or doesn’t care, that we are already well under way to finding such cures! As stated above, human patients with the very diseases Tucker mentioned have already benefited from adult-tissue therapies. Animal studies have advanced even further. For example, mice with advanced-stage juvenile diabetes have been cured with adult cell therapies. Yet instead of embracing these advances, Tucker complained, “I certainly don’t understand a 21st-century superpower that devotes billions to building smart bombs to destroy life efficiently but refuses to fund the research that could save or enhance the lives of millions of its citizens.”

Ignorance, thy name is Tucker. Apparently she is unaware that the federal government poured more than $200 million into adult-stem-cell research and about $25 million into embryonic-stem-cell research in 2003. In addition, private investors have abundantly invested in adult-stem-cell research, while generally shunning embryonic and human cloning research, largely because adult therapies are so much closer to fruition than embryonic approaches.

Apparently, Tucker would put her political views before the current state of the science and reverse this funding ratio. But this would be most unwise. It could delay bringing regenerative cures to the American people by diverting resources away from adult-cell cures already in early human trials and toward embryonic research that can’t even be done safely in humans–a point made by Joni Eareckson Tada that bounced off Larry King’s forehead.

Amazingly, the ideological fervor in favor of using nascent human life in stem-cell treatments is so intense that it prevents even liberal media elites who suffer from these diseases from embracing emerging treatments that use adult cells. Michael Kinsley, the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, is a puzzling case in point. Kinsley has Parkinson’s. One would think he would be extremely interested in the successful experiment involving fellow Parkinson’s patient Dennis Turner, who five years ago received an 83 percent reversal of his symptoms after a treatment using his own brain stem cells. Kinsley should also find great hope in the results of another human trial in which five Parkinson’s patients, treated with a natural body chemical known as glial cell-line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), improved so significantly that three regained their senses of taste and smell.

But Kinsley is blind to this wonderful news. In a diatribe against Laura Bush and the president, Kinsley claimed that “stem cell research has been drastically slowed” by the president’s stem-cell policy (again, apparently, the only real stem-cell research is embryonic-stem-cell research). Working himself into a blind rage, Kinsley accused President Bush of “ensuring there is no hope at all” for people like him who suffer from Parkinson’s disease–a statement exhibiting sheer indifference to the very facts that hold out true hope for Kinsley’s own health problems.

Media opponents of President Bush’s stem-cell policy often accuse the president of deciding science questions based on religious beliefs. But they are the ones whose ideological predilections and personal antipathy for political opponents are making them incapable of appreciating the evidence. As the old saying goes, none are so blind as those who will not see.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His next book, Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World, will be published by Encounter this fall.



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