has a good piece in the current issue exposing the hype that has permeated embryonic stem cell research advocacy and its reporting by media. In "A Stem Cell History Lesson," (no link, here's the abstract
), University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researcher James M. Wilson
warns against unrealistic boosting of ESCR, as was done previously with gene therapy. His column starts with a recent quote from President Obama:
Obama hasn't really been circumspect
"At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown and it should not be overstated," the president said. "I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek." Unfortunately, some stakeholders in hESC research have failed to exhibit the same restraint, effectively promising cures for Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, macular degeneration, and hearing loss, to name a few.
, but let's leave that aside. Wilson notes that the same factors pushing ESCR hype, were present in the earlier over-heated enthusiasm for gene therapy that led to the field moving faster than the actual science warranted:
Many of the factors that fueled gene therapy's premature expansion are major drivers of the hESC and iPS research agenda today. A large and vocal population of patients suffering from a wide variety of ailments is pressing for stem cell-based therapies. Disease-specific stem cell research groups are more politically sophisticated than ever, in some cases employing congressional lobbyists. Unrealistic expectations have been fueled by relentless media coverage, driven in part by a factor not present in the gene therapy roll-out: a debate over the ethics of research on human embryos and embryo cells, which has served as a "news hook" that brings media attention to even the most incremental of advances.
It is difficult to avoid getting caught up in the unabashed enthusiasm that attends the emergence of a novel, but untested, therapeutic technology platform, as I myself experienced. Still, January's media coverage of the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of a hESC-related clinical trial-an experiment sponsored by Geron..., aimed at spinal cord injuries-was surprising for its lack of restraint. News reports characterized Geron's mere gaining of federal permission to test the cells in patients as a "breakthrough." And in a highly questionable move, Good Morning America accompanied its news report with faux video footage depicting the paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve getting out of his wheel chair and walking again.
I hadn't seen that Good Morning America
bit. That's truly shameful. Even Geron says that its product would not work for people, like Reeve, with long-term spinal cord injuries.
Reading Wilson, one would presume that outside forces are primarily to blame for the shameless hype. But from my perspective, it is the scientists themselves
who were the main sources for the excess boosterism. They are the ones who goaded on the media and gave false hope to the disease celebrity victims and the advocacy groups.
But such anti-scientific behavior has consequences, such as building pressures to go faster into human trials and therapies than actually supported by the science--which is precisely what happened with gene therapy, as Wilson points out, citing a 1995 committee investigation (Orkin-Motulsky panel) undertaken by the NIH:
The report recommended that researchers get back to basics and develop a more robust understanding of gene transfer in animals. The researchers continued to pursue clinical trials aggressively. And the hype continued until the turn of the century when a confluence of events--the tragic and widely publicized death of Jesse Gelsinger, questions regarding regulatory oversight of gene therapy, bursting of the overall biotech bubble, and stakeholder impatience due to unmet expectations--led to a precipitous decline in financial and public support.
And beginning only three years
after the Orkin-Motulsky panel published its report, ESCR advocates were at it again, screaming CURES! CURES! CURES! accompanied by with much bigger drums and much louder cymbals.
I applaud Wilson for trying to put the hype genie back in the bottle. But it is too late. So much energy, money, political capital, and invective against opponents have been spewed from pro ESCR advocates, that truths uttered by responsible scientists like Wilson bounce off peoples' foreheads like a ping pong ball; leaving not a mark.