Stem-Cell Political Science:
Nature’s Agenda

By Michael Fumento

National Review Online, March 28, 2002
Copyright 2002 National Review Online

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Such a coincidence! With the U.S. Senate debating so-called "therapeutic cloning" to produce embryonic stem (ES) cells and other countries, such as Canada, suffering similar political agony, Nature magazine releases letters from two research teams saying that the alternative – so-called adult stem cells – may be worthless.

Nature was so eager to get the news out that it even published the letters online, before the print edition. Both letters attack the "supposed flexibility" of NES cells, as one reporter put it. And the world media swallowed it like a starving mouse downing a chunk of cheddar.

Sheets of skin far superior to grafts, grown from a patient’s own follicular stem cells, may soon get FDA approval.

The Washington Post subhead flatly declared: "Adult Cells Found Less Useful Than Embryonic Ones." Agence-Presse France headlined: "’Breakthrough’ in Adult Stem Cells Is Hype, Studies Warn," while an Australian newswire, AAP, boldly presented its prediction as fact. "New Research Tips Debate on Stem Cells," ran the header.

Wrong, says Indiana State University biologist David Prentice. Instead we have "political science" he says, "speculation and nonsense" in a major science journal designed to influence national policies. The assault goes right to the heart of the debate. That’s because research to date appears to show that NES cells are superior in virtually every way except that – or so ES-cell research proponents claim – ES cells have far greater potential to "differentiate" into a vastly greater number of useful mature cells.

The teams that wrote to Nature had placed NES cells from mice marrow and brains into petri dishes with ES cells. They found that while the NES cells took on some characteristics of cells that had differentiated into mature tissue, in at least some cases this was only because they were fusing with the embryonic cells. Worse, they even found that some of these hybrids had two sets of chromosomes, something that could prove dangerous if it occurred within the human body. (Tom Spears, the ever-clueless science writer whose material appears in several major Canadian newspapers described these as "Hybrid ’Frankencells.’" Shiver me timbers!)

Apparent conclusion: What scientists think has been happening to NES cells in their experiments may not be happening at all; the entire area of science may be bankrupt. Hence, our only salvation is embryonic-stem-cell research.

Actual conclusion: The NES cells did just what the researchers knew they would and their results have no practical application.

The conditions in the experiments could never occur inside the body, because our bodies have no ES cells. In the body, added NES cells do just what we previously believed they did: They assume the characteristics of surrounding tissue and repair them.

NES cells introduced into damaged human hearts have become heart muscle, those introduced into damaged corneas have become corneal tissue, and those inserted into injured livers have effected liver repair.

"They become what they’re exposed to," explains Prentice. "As a realtor would put it, it’s location, location, location."

They’re also being removed from the body, transformed, and then put back. A Swiss company may this year receive regulatory approval to treat burn victims with sheets of skin grown from a few of their own follicular stem cells.

As of last year, there were over 30 different anti-cancer applications alone from non-embryonic stem cells, all performed on humans and all appearing in peer-reviewed medical literature. There are over 100 non-embryonic-stem-cell experiments in animals that have shown success against a tremendous variety of diseases.

Bizarrely, the Nature writers (and everybody who parrots their claims) act as if NES cell therapy is still experimental. In fact marrow transplants, a routine procedure since the early 1990s, is actually the transplantation and differentiation of marrow stem cells. Umbilical-cord stem-cell therapy began a few years later and now some 70 different diseases, primarily forms of leukemia, are treated with these stem cells.

Marrow transplant operations are actually therapy with non-embryonic cells.

To accept the Nature line is the equivalent of declaring that the earth is flat ten years after Magellan circumnavigated it. Yet this isn’t as strange as it sounds considering that just last summer prominent ES advocates were claiming there was no evidence NES cells even existed.

Finally, as irrelevant as the cell-fusing phenomenon is, it’s also ancient news. As one of the Nature letters admits, "Spontaneous fusion between mammalian cell lines was originally documented in 1961."

But would such a highly respected journal as Nature do something so crass to influence a political debate? You bet.

It was Nature that during President Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1998 released a report titled "Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child," relying on DNA testing of the slave’s descendants. An accompanying commentary explicitly compared the alleged actions of the revered Thomas Jefferson to the known activities of the not-so-revered William Jefferson Clinton.

Yet all the DNA tests proved was that somebody with genes similar to Jefferson’s had sired the child; more likely the president’s younger brother than Jefferson himself, who would have been 65 at the time.

I found out about Nature’s "political science" years earlier, when the journal assigned a prominent AIDS activist to review my book The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS. When I protested in a letter that he quoted lines from the book that never appeared in it, the editor wrote back that he was entitled to his opinion.

Nature played politics when it impugned Thomas Jefferson in order to make Bill Clinton look a bit less sleazy.

Advocates for government spending on embryonic stem cells are running scared with good reason. Even though non-embryonic-stem-cell technology is already years ahead of ES work in terms of experimentation and application, recently it has exploded like a thermobaric bomb.

In December, Osiris Corp. of Baltimore announced that the NES cells it’s been working with provoke no immune reaction going from one animal to another and even one species to another. This is even as ES-cell researchers are admitting it could be quite some time before they engineer out the protein from ES cells that makes them universally rejected. They also have to solve the nasty tendency of ES cells to form malignancies. NES cells don’t cause this problem.

Scientists are discovering NES cells in virtually every part of the body they look, including not only marrow, placentas, and skin but also blood, brains, spinal cords, dental pulp, muscles, blood vessels, corneas, retinas, livers, pancreases, and liposuctioned fat. (Talk about an inexhaustible natural resource!) They’re finding they can convert each of these into many other types of cells. Fat stem cells, for example, have been made into cartilage, blood, and bone cells, but also into mature fat cells that could be used to fill in traumatized tissue.

There appears no need for a "one-size-fits-all" cell.

That said, in January The New Scientist reported that Catherine Verfaillie and coworkers at the University of Minnesota had found stem cells in human marrow that as an outside researcher put it, "differentiate into pretty much everything that an embryonic stem cell can differentiate into." At least two other labs claim to have found similar cells in mice, while MorphoGen of San Diego says it has found them in skin, muscle, and human bone marrow.

"All the benefits claimed for embryonic stem cells we are finding can be replicated by adult stem cells," says president and CEO of the company Terry Ryusaki.

In February, the journal Science reported that cells from monkey ova could be used to create apparently totipotent cells without forming an embryo that could develop into an animal.

In short, non-embryonic stem cells have may have quickly jumped from having almost every advantage over embryonic ones to having every advantage. If you were a scientist dependent on the government nipple to keep your embryonic-stem-cell research going, you’d be choking now, too – and hoping that somebody like Nature would be delivering your salvation.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on biotechnology.