Human Exceptionalism

Embryonic Stem Cell Hype Encore

I predicted in 2013 that the company which bought Geron would restart its embryonic stem cell product human trial. Indeed, it is.

I could also have predicted the media would hype it to the moon. And so the San Francisco Chronicle has in big headlines on the front page. From, “Stem Cell Industry’s ‘Huge Development’ in Bay Area:”

Almost three years after a Bay Area company shut down the world’s first clinical trial of a therapy using embryonic stem cells, another local company is reviving the therapy.The treatment drew international attention in 2010, when Geron in Menlo Park began testing it in patients with severe spinal cord injuries. But it scrapped the project a year later because of a lack of funds – a move seen as a major blow to the nascent field. The therapy was then sold to Asterias Biotherapeutics, also in Menlo Park. On Wednesday, Asterias said it had gained regulatory permission to test whether the treatment, which is derived from human embryonic stem cells, helps heal patients with a different kind of spinal cord injury…

“It’s a huge development for the field,” said Kevin Whittlesey, science officer at the agency. “We’re starting to realize the potential touted so highly when embryonic stem cell research was in its infancy.”

Let’s deconstruct this. First, the prominence of the story seeks to help California’s boondoggle stem cell agency keep its door open

The trial was also described as a victory by the state’s taxpayer-funded stem cell agency. Created by voters a decade ago, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is authorized to spend $3 billion on stem cell research, and its future rests on the results, including any potential therapies, that those scientists and companies develop. A $14.3 million grant will cover half the costs of Asterias’ trial, the company said.

Secondly, the original Geron study may not have worked all that well:

With some tweaks, Asterias is picking up where Geron left off. Geron treated severe injuries in the thoracic region of the spinal cord, which runs along the back. Asterias is targeting injuries that originate in the neck, citing an outside study that suggests injuries in this area are easier to treat. It will also amp up the doses used to inject patients.

Finally, if this is such a big deal, why do the media constantly ignore far more advanced human trials for spinal cord injury using ethical stem cells? For example this very exciting peer reviewed study of paralyzed subjects treated with olfactory stem cells:

Of the 13 patients assessed by functional studies, 1 paraplegic patient (patient 9) can ambulate with 2 crutches and knee braces with no physical assistance and 10 other patients can ambulate with walkers with or without braces with physical assistance.

One tetraplegic patient (patient 13) ambulates with a walker, without knee braces or physical assistance.

Did you get that? Tetraplegia means paralyzed from the neck down! In this study, one totally paralyzed subject now uses a walker without assistance. Why isn’t that worth a front page story?

Let me answer my own question: Because when it comes to cultural deconstruction, it isn’t the treatment that matters so much as the source of the treatment. Adult stem cells just don’t shatter any moral boundaries.

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