Thursday, November 11, 2010

Walking back the hype?

A recent (11/9/10) New York Times article is notable in that it represents a rare instance in which the mainstream media seems to be walking back some of the hype that has surrounded human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) for over a decade now.

The paper’s health and medicine reporter, Nicholas Wade, writes:

“Stem cell researchers have created an illusion of progress by claiming regular advances in the 12 years since human embryonic stem cells were first developed. But a notable fraction of these claims have turned out to be wrong or fraudulent, and many others have amounted to yet another new way of getting to square one by finding better methods of deriving human embryonic stem cells.”

An “illusion of progress?” Claims of advances “wrong or fraudulent?” For more than a decade we’ve been told human embryonic stem cells had the power to cure so many diseases and conditions – Parkinson’s, heart disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes – and all within 5 to 10 years.

Now even the New York Times is admitting this was “fraud” and “illusion."

Wade also casts a pessimistic light on the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), approved by that state’s voters in 2004 with a 10 year, $3 billion dollar budget to fund stem cell research – primarily hESCR. Voters were promised this would lead to many cures and therapies and the state would reap millions in royalties from those treatments.

But now, Wade writes, the exact opposite is likely to happen. Rather than reaping vast profits from therapies (that have yet to happen) Wade concludes: “By allocating so much money to a single field, California is placing an enormous bet on a single horse, and the chances are substantial that its taxpayers will lose their collective shirt.”

Wade further admits that this whole field was indeed unrealistically hyped, but he blames politicians, not researchers for this: “Stem cell scientists, while generally avoiding rash promises themselves, have allowed politicians to portray stem cells as a likely cure for all the major diseases.”

But this doesn’t wash. Politicians may have taken the lead in the hESCR hype, but this was a matter of degree not kind; researchers were no strangers to this game. Moreover, researchers testified in numerous congressional hearings over the years, and so had ample opportunities to tone down or correct the politicians’ exaggerations, but they rarely if ever did. This silence really was complicity (Click here
for a more complete look at the exaggerations made by researchers).

So what, if anything, is left for all the promises made on behalf of hESCR?
Wade writes: “The major advances in stem cell biology have come from molecular biologists who study transcription factors, the master control switches that govern the cell's operations.” He then singles out the work of Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka, one of the two scientists (working independently) who in 2007 discovered a way to induce ordinary somatic (body) cells into pluripotent, embryo-like stem cells dubbed “induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs)”. Wade says Yamanaka’s breakthrough “illustrates what stem cell research is really about. It's not about therapies and quick cures, it's about understanding the basic nature of human cells…”

Many have claimed that Yamanaka’s breakthrough was based on prior research using hESCs – but this is false. According to Yamanaka, human embryonic stem cells were not crucial to his work. Yamanaka's initial work in reprogramming utilized mice, not human, embryonic stem cells and he used the same method for human iPSC production. According to him, "Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I've never worked with either" (Nature, June 7 2007, p 618, emphasis added). In fact, it was precisely Yamanaka’s ethical concerns to avoid lethal experiments with human embryos that led to his breakthrough. Recalling looking at a human embryo through a microscope several years earlier, Yamanaka said: ''When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters…''I thought, we can't keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way'' (“Risk Taking in His Genes;” The New York Times, 12/11/07).

Hmmm… if most of the therapeutic claims made about hESCR are “fraudulent” and “illusions,” and if the work of one researcher who never used hESCs and yet achieved the reprogramming breakthrough that illustrates “what stem cell research is really about,” then why are we still using taxpayer dollars to fund hESCR?

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