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Sharon Begley on Stem Cells


In the latest Newsweek, science correspondent Sharon Begley offers a “reality check” on the stem-cell breakthrough. (It’s flagged on the cover.)

[T]he attention the discovery is receiving obscures an important change in stem-cell science. While the research was once hailed as leading directly to cures—by turning stem cells into neuronal cells that could be implanted in patients with Parkinson’s disease, say—it now looks like something much more mundane: another laboratory tool to study different diseases, yielding insights that would launch the slow, years-long search for new therapies.  . .  .

To a public for whom stem cells equal cure, the real blow will be the realization that the simplistic picture—take a patient’s genes, slip them into an egg, let the egg grow and divide into stem cells that are perfect genetic matches for the patient and transplant those cells to treat diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s—is more fiction than fact. “Creating cell lines for transplant is unlikely to come down the pike any time soon,” Paul Nurse, president of Rockefeller University and a Nobelist in medicine, told the New York Stem Cell Foundation conference last month. “Opponents [of embryonic stem-cell research] recognized that this was an overselling of the technology.”

Now she tells us! That disease models, not regenerative therapy, was the direction of embryonic stem-cell research was clear several years ago–but Newsweek readers never heard about it from Begley.

In 2001, when Bush was deciding whether to fund embryo-destructive research, Begley was one of the most activist journalists on the stem-cell beat. Here’s how she concluded a 2,400 word cover story for Newsweek that summer: “We simply don’t know how embryonic cells might help people who are suffering and dying today. By banning [sic] the research, we uphold the most extreme view of the sanctity of life, but at a price: foreclosing the possibility of doing all we can to improve the lot of the living.”

After Bush made his decision, Begley wrote that it might turn out to be “a cruel blow to millions of patients for whom embryonic stem cells might offer the last chance for health and life.” But that was the old CW! New CW: This research is no big deal.