please note: this blog was originally posted on 6/21/11
The National Science Foundation (NSF) on June 10 issued a press release calling attention to a study the NSF funded on stem cell research and published in the June 9 issue of the scientific journal Cell.
“Social scientists study impact of human adult stem cell research” the headline reads, followed by: “Researchers say human adult and embryonic stem cell research is complementary.”
The release then sums up the study’s main finding: “New research says studying both adult and embryonic stem cells can benefit medical science, but banning the study of either type could harm studies of the other.” The remainder of the release elaborates on this point to the effect that any effort to cut back or eliminate federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) would have negative effects for adult stem cell research as well.
Now Cell is a very specialized scientific journal with a subscription rate of $212 annually, meaning most outside the scientific/research community will not have access to the full study described in the press release; for interested lay people, any information on the study will in all likelihood come from this press release.
But if you do read the original study in full, you will be struck by a rather amazing fact: what the press release reports actually has nothing to do with the study itself.
The study reports on the intersection of research using induced pluripotent stem cells iPSCs) and human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). It has nothing at all to do with adult stem cell research, adult stem cell research is never addressed or discussed and in fact the word “adult” only occurs twice in the whole study and on the last page at that (one is a reference to “two adult stem cell researchers” who brought a lawsuit challenging federal funding of hESCR and the other is at the very end of the study reflecting an opinion of the authors).
So outrageous was the deceptiveness of the press release vis-a-vis the actual study itself that David Prentice, PhD, a Do No Harm founding member and Senior Fellow for Life Sciences at the Family Research Council, said he was “appalled that the National Science Foundation would publish an ideological paper that promotes embryo-destructive research by attempting to link such research to advances in iPS cell research. While even this possible linkage is questionable based on the limits of the data presented, NSF in its headlong rush to promote ES cell research goes over the edge in confusing and prejudicing the public.”
So where’s the confusion and why does it matter?
By equating iPSCs with adult stem cells, the press release deliberately confuses what are two separate and very distinct types of stem cells. As Dr. Prentice noted in his statement on the study and release: “While iPS cells provide an ethical method to form pluripotent stem cells almost identical to ES cells, from any person, but without embryo destruction, iPS cells are not adult stem cells” (emphasis added).
Why does this matter?
Because the release (which, as already noted, is where most interested lay people would find out about this study) would have you believe that the proven and ongoing success of adult stem cells to actually provide real therapeutic benefits to patients depends on continued federal funding for embryo destructive stem cell research. And this is simply not true, nor has it ever been true.
Adult stem cells have provided therapeutic benefits for human patients for 73 diseases and conditions, including spinal cord injury; heart disease; multiple sclerosis; lupus; sickle cell anemia and Parkinson’s, among others. In contrast, only two patients have been treated with hESCs, both in a clinical trial for spinal cord injury (no results have been reported yet) and two more are slated to receive injections of hESCs for two different types of vision loss.
The success that adult stem cell research has had in treating patients did not come from the use of hESCs and does not in any way depend on continued federal funding for embryo-destructive research. In fact, the case could be made that the exact opposite is true: continued federal funding for hESCR may actually be hurting adult stem cell research by drawing limited funds away from it -- the very research that is actually helping patients now. As evidence of this, consider that a federal appeals court agreed with two adult stem cell researchers that by funding ESC research, the Administration is depriving adult stem cell researchers of the opportunity they would otherwise have to access these funds and advance stem cell research that is ethically non-controversial and which everyone accepts. This “competitive disadvantage” is what gave the two adult stem cell researchers standing to sue the Department of Health and Human Services.
The NSF press release is just another misdirection, the latest in a long string of deceptions and falsehoods proponents of embryo-destructive research have used to advance their agenda.