Human Exceptionalism

Follow $ to Non-Embryonic Stem Cell Research!

Ten years ago, we were in the midst of a heated national debate over embryonic stem cell research. Proponents castigated opponents (like me) as “anti-science,” and theocratic for opposing ESCR federal funding based on ethical concerns.

When we claimed that alternatives to embryonic stem cells showed great promise, we were derided as Luddites. Embryonic stem cells were the “only hope” society was told again and again. Adult stem cells could only become one type of cell, I saw scientists blatantly lie to legislators at committee hearings. They can be good for blood cancers, but that’s about it.

Meanwhile, media touted even the most minor ESCR successes in animal studies, while ignoring fantastic human advances in adult stem cell science. Worse, desperate patients and their families were shamelessly hyped about the coming ESCR CURES! CURES! CURES! Yet, all these years later, we still only have a few minor human trials ongoing with embryonic products.

Advocates for blank-check ESCR funding claimed falsely that President Bush had “banned” such experiments–oft repeated in an in-the-tank media. (Bush actually funded human ESCR in the hundreds of millions and expressed great confidence that scientists would find ethical alternatives–a view that bore great fruit.)

Pro ESCR mendacity impacted popular opinion and helped pass laws in California, Maryland, and elsewhere establishing state funding for Big Biotech experiments.

But venture capital–some of us pointed out at the time–wasn’t primarily going to ESCR. Rather, it was being invested in ethical approaches, such as adult–and later, IPSCs made from human skin.

And now the ESCR blowhards are also putting most of their money into ethical approaches. From the Washington Times story:

In 2007, the newly created California Institute for Regenerative Medicine kept its promise and spent $121 million on human embryonic stem cell research. Of 100 grants the institute issued in its first year, not one went to a project that used adult stem cells, Mr. Tarne said in his July 2012 report for the Lozier institute. By 2012, though, the institute’s funding had shifted course — it gave 15 grants, worth about $50 million, to non-embryonic research projects and six grants, worth $19 million, to embryonic research projects.

Mr. Tarne found a similar pattern in Maryland, another state with an active stem cell research community. In 2007, the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission funded 11 projects that used human embryos and four that used adult stem cells. This year, though, the Maryland commission funded only one embryonic stem cell project and 28 non-embryonic projects.

What about the Feds after President Obama made such a stink about the Bush funding policy?

Separately, the National Institutes of Health remains a major player in all kinds of stem cell research: In fiscal 2012, it issued $146.5 million for embryonic stem cell research and $504 million for non-embryonic projects; both were record-breaking amounts for the agency.

As the old saying goes, follow the money.

Both sides in the ESCR debate were well intentioned, seeking the best for the country and medical science. But one side had it more right than the other, was more scientifically accurate in their arguments–and far more truthful in their popular advocacy.

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