Yet if the shuttle has proved to have little use, ESCs so far have had none. Theyve never been tested on a human, much less treated one. And like the shuttle, there are far superior alternatives. Culled from numerous body tissues as well as umbilical cords and placenta, these are generally called "adult stem cells." Yet the value of ASCs are routinely downplayed or even ignored precisely because ESCs, like the shuttle, are of such marginal value to the human race but of such tremendous value to individual reputations and budgets.
Which brings us to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frists support of new legislation (and his break with the Bush administration) that would tremendously expand federal aid for ESC research. (Note: one of the myths surrounding ESC research is that it currently receives no federal support, while another goes even further to say such research is illegal.)
Frists position carries much weight, were told, not just because hes the highest-ranking Republican in Congress, but also a physician. Actually, that makes him as much a specialist on stem cells as a plumber is on aquatic chemistry. A half hour of reading will give you more knowledge about these cells than the average doctor possesses. In that short time you might learn that ASCs are CURRENTLY used in over 250 human clinical trials and are treating over 80 different diseases.
ESC researchers sniff that this is only because their field is newer, but research on both types of cell dates back to the 1950s. ESCs arent playing catch-up; theyre falling further behind.
Oddly, although Frist is a heart transplant physician he seems clueless that some of the most exciting ASC work directly involves his field. As I have written on this website, ASCs have been used to induce either muscle or vessel growth in human hearts in hundreds of patients in labs throughout the world. Next month, Brazil begins stem cell experiments involving 1,200 people for four different heart problems.
Another myth that Frist propagated in his "breakaway" speech is that "embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide." In fact, ALL that ESCs have is promise. Thats why advocates feel obliged to claim theyll eventually cure every disease from Alzheimers to acne. But again, had Frist done his homework hed know that three years ago scientists began changing ASCs into ALL three types of cells the body produces.
Since then, lab after lab has used various forms of ASCs to make all those cell types, but to ESC advocates its vital you not know this. They also go bonkers if you mention researchers are developing at least four different methods of creating ESCs without destroying embryos, as the June issue of Wired documented. They want that money NOW!
It promises to cure all diseases, yet ESC research like the space shuttle is dependent on government funding.
This isnt to say ASC research NEEDS public funding either. But weve long accepted that deserving medical research should get public dollars. ASC researchers could easily handle far more grant money than they currently receive, without using it to gold-plate the operating instruments. As Ive earlier written, prominent Harvard researcher Dr. Denise Faustman may well have found a cure for type 1 diabetes involving ASCs but cannot proceed with testing for lack of money, even as the nations largest juvenile diabetes organization has refused to fund her but instead lobbies for more ESC research.
Meanwhile, the federal medical research budget has virtually stopped expanding so that inherently more spending for anything means less for other things; more for ESCs means less for ASCs. Why rob Producing Peter to pay Potential Paul?
You may have noticed no mention herein of the moral baggage that also accompanies ESCs. This is not a failure to realize it exists. Its merely that theres no point discussing it if ESCs have no obvious advantage over their ASC counterparts and anyway well be getting ESC without ripping apart embryos.
The case against ESCs is scientific. If the technology has a fraction of the true potential its backers claim, the market will fund it. But if youre an investor who really believes the hype, Ive got a space shuttle to sell you.
Read Michael Fumentos additional work on stem cells.