Human Exceptionalism

Journalistic Clarity on Adult and Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Neil Munro is a wonderful journalist for the National Journal–one of the most prestigious public policy journals in the world. He covers biotechnology like no other and has a story out “Two Roads on Stem-Cell Policy” (no link available) about the tremendous successes that appear to be occurring in early human trials around the world with adult stem cells–including some we have discussed here, such as the apparent cure for type 1 diabetes, the restoration of feeling in paraplegics and quadriplegics, and for heart disease. One reason for so many human trials overseas, Munro writes, is that some of these countries have more lax requirements for human trials and doctors more willing to engage in experimental therapies–which can be a bad thing, as we saw with the Korean woman who was treated with umbilical cord blood stem cells for her paralysis with terrible consequences. Here are a few choice excerpts from Munro’s story:

The proliferation of overseas testing can be partly explained by the fact that American drug companies and federally funded researchers have an easier time finding patients abroad, Landis said. Also, she added, U.S. researchers prefer to hold results until publication in peer-reviewed journals, for fear that early claims might later be found false. In the 1990s, for example, announcements by U.S. researchers of a breakthrough in “fetal-tissue research” proved unfounded, she said, and she pointed out that the diabetes tests in Brazil “purported to be … treating patients who had very recently diagnosed with diabetes,” not people who had been diabetic for some time.

Richard Burt of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, who was the lead physician on the diabetes test, said that it is easier to find willing doctors and to get support from the government in Brazil. “In Brazil, they’re very enthusiastic,” he said. “The focus in America–I’m not saying this is wrong, and I want to stay on the science end, not politics–is on embryonic stem cells.

Yes, well at least part of the reason for that is politics. I sometimes think that many scientists here want embryonic research to “work” better in order to “prove Bush wrong” and further, to gain greater leverage for experiments on developing human life past the early embryo stage.

Be that as it may, Munro notes that most private companies are not actively pursuing the idea of using ES cells as therapeutic agents (the media template to the contrary notwithstanding):

Few companies and researchers are working to develop embryonic stem cells for transplantation into people partly because these cells tend to proliferate and produce teratomas–disorganized, cancer-like tumors of many cell types. Singapore-based ES Cell International announced in July that it had stopped trying to develop embryonic-stem-cell transplants for people suffering from diabetes and heart problems. “The likelihood of having products in the clinic in the short term was vanishingly small,” Alan Colman, who was chief executive of ESI until recently, told Science magazine. One of the few U.S. companies pushing ahead with embryonic-stem-cell transplants is Geron in Menlo Park, Calif., which hopes to test a treatment in 2008 for spinal injuries.

I know of no journalist who writes with less bias and more depth on these issues than Neil Munro. Too bad that most people never have a chance to read his work.

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