In fact, the research will line the pockets of a relatively few individuals – at considerable cost for the rest of us, since the funding means billions that wont go to more promising areas.
Though ES cells have long been touted as the miracle just down the road, researchers keep driving into big potholes. For starters, theres the rejection problem: Your body naturally attacks foreign cells, even ones that might help you. So cell recipients must permanently use dangerous immunosuppressive drugs.
Perhaps that problem can be solved someday, but even University of Wisconsin scientist James Thomson, the creator of the first human ES-cell line, says treatments and cures could be decades away.
Conversely, adult stem cells (AS cells, meaning any naturally found stem cell not from embryos), are far more controllable (that is, easier to direct to become the desired cell type) and have thus been saving lives for decades, via (for example) bone-marrow transplants. More recently, AS cells have treated illnesses including cancers, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, immunodeficiency disorders and neural degenerative diseases.
Plus, AS cells are often "self-donated" – eliminating rejection problems (though AS rejection even from outside donors has turned out to be relatively minimal).
Researchers originally found promise in ES cells mainly because they thought only ES cells could be converted into all types of mature cells. But since 2002, dozens of published studies have shown the same can be done with a vast array of AS cells, from placenta to testes.
Then, two years ago, scientists discovered how to make "induced pluripotent stem cells" from human-skin cells. These are just as flexible as embryonic ones – but, as with AS cells, have neither the health drawbacks nor the moral problems associated with the embryonic variety.
In short, other lines of inquiry are unquestionably far more promising than ES cells – yet this research will now get a big funding boost. Why?
Basically, the lobby for ES-cell research succeeded in shutting down critics (or even questions) by presenting the question as "medical progress versus pro-life politics" (as one Newsweek cover put it).
The media, observes the Genetics & Society Center, consistently squeeze all reporting into a prefab story line of "scientists hoping to save lives versus opponents of abortion rights who see destroying stem cells as equivalent to taking a life."
And its a very wealthy lobby. Research funding can generate tremendous income with no treatments, because human and animal ES cells, and materials and techniques used to manipulate them, can all be patented. Licensing fees make them worth a fortune.
All this drives what wheelchair-bound medical activist Jim Kelly calls "the embryonic-research economic juggernaut."
As journalist Neil Munroe has documented, researchers who cash in routinely present themselves – with enthusiastic media help – as neutral parties. Best known is Dr. Irving Weissman, director of Stanford Universitys Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, a frequent critic of AS-cell research whos made millions from ES-cell patents. In 2004, he appeared in TV commercials pleading for a "YES" vote on Prop 71 as "an MD" who "took an oath that the very highest priority was the treatment of patients." Prop 71 now funds his institute.
Weissman routinely attacks AS cell research, as when he declared in 2004 “Scientifically, there is no independently verified evidence today that a pure stem cell of one type – adult tissue, say blood forming – can turn into another tissue at all.” Yet a slew of such studies had already appeared in peer-reviewed medical and science journals – including one co-authored by a certain Irving Weissman.
"Theres a lot of pressure to give ES researchers what they want," says David Hess, a neurologist at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. But "everybody is fighting over the same pie" – a dime spent on dead-end ES work is a dime unavailable for research, stem cell or otherwise, with true promise to heal the sick.
"People are dying, and theyre going to continue to die, and people are paralyzed and will continue to stay paralyzed," says Jim Kelly, "all of them a victim of the embryonic-research economic juggernaut."