(This is a sidebar from Why the Media Miss the Stem-Cell Story.)
So-called adult stem cells (ASC) and embryonic stem cells (ESC) were discovered at approximately the same time – about half a century ago. But ESCs proved notoriously difficult to grow in the lab, and when placed in an animal they often refused to stop growing and became cancer. ASCs dont cause cancer; they cure it. They have also created skin grafts for burn victims, repaired a German girls skull, and rebuilt heart muscle and blood vessels.
Why, then, is so much attention and money focused on ESC research? It turns out its not about science; its more like trading embryos for cash. ESCs and the equipment related to their use can be patented, and those patents appeal to speculators. And the prospect of billions in taxpayer dollars heightens corporate and investor interest in the field.
Consider California-based Stem Cells, Inc. Its share values shot up 150 percent in the month prior to the November 2004 election, as it became ever clearer that California voters would approve $3 billion in state funds for ESC research. As it happens, the company only worked with ASCs, not ESCs, but a lot of investors probably didnt know that, while the others figured that with the nations most prominent ESC research advocate – Stanfords Irving Weissman – as a co-founder, board member, and stockholder, it soon would be.
Little wonder that backers of the California ballot measure raised $34 million for the campaign. Many shareholders of Stem Cells, Inc. and other companies became instant millionaires because of it. Contributor Bill Gates added to his billions.
The bottom line is that each time a reporter exaggerates the worth of ESCs or understates the demonstrated benefit of ASCs, investors in Stem Cells, Inc., or a number of privately held companies hear "Ka-ching!" Media misrepresentation makes current and future ESC patents that much more valuable. Conversely, if it were made illegal to patent the products of human embryos, as some have argued, the bottom could drop right out of ESC research.
Read Michael Fumentos additional work on stem cells.