Short on Facts - The False Argument over Embryonic-stem-cell Research

By Michael Fumento

National Review Online, July 23, 2001
Copyright 2001 National Review Online

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The embryonic full-court press is on, fielding an all-star team.

Injured and sick celebrities like Christopher Reeve, journalists such as Morton Kondracke (whose wife Milly has late-stage Parkinson’s disease), and prominent politicians like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, and former Florida Sen. Connie Mack are all demanding that the ban on federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research be lifted.

Nancy Reagan: Media-Annointed Stem Cell Expert

Anybody with the least conservative credentials who favors lifting the ban gets splashed onto Page One. Most recently this includes Nancy Reagan, as if being a conservative president’s wife makes someone an authority in issues deeply involving ethics and biology. What makes them authorities, of course, is that they favor lifting the ban.

To see just how bad the distortions have become in this new push, look no further than Newsweek’s July 9 issue, which presents the entire argument on the cover. "The Stem Cell Wars," declare the boldest words. "Embryo Research vs. Pro-Life Politics: There’s Hope for Alzheimer’s, Heart Disease, Parkinson’s and Diabetes. But Will Bush Cut Off the Money?"

Yet, (A) the money has been cut off since 1996, well before Bush became president; (B) when the media aren’t portraying all those who support keeping the ban as fanatical pro-lifers, they’re filling their pages with testimonials from abortion opponents calling for an end to the ban; and (C) even without federal funds, nay even without embryonic cells, stem-cell research has made tremendous strides toward bringing hope to persons with the very diseases Newsweek’s cover lists, along with many others.

Focus in on the third anomaly. Why aren’t we hearing about this?

Simple: It’s scientific ignorance, with a dollop of disinformation tossed in for good measure. Advances in tissue-regeneration research are coming fast and furious because of something either ignored or pooh-poohed by embryonic-cell advocates — non-embryonic stem cells.

Scientists are finding such stem cells in tissues throughout the body, then converting them into an incredible array of mature cells with the ability to combat a vast number of devastating diseases and injuries.

Yet across the board, proponents of lifting the embryonic-cell research ban either are ignorant or pretend to be ignorant of the tremendous advances in non-embryonic stem cell research. Often they fail even to recognize that there are stem cells that are not embryonic. (Some of these are properly called "adult stem cells," whereas others such as those from umbilical cords resist the "adult" nomenclature. Regardless, the only valid distinction regarding the current debate is between embryonic and non-embryonic.)

Thus the title of Connie Mack’s June 19 Wall Street Journal op-ed: "I’m Pro-Life — And in Favor of Stem Cell Research" is only the contradiction it aims to be if you ignore non-embryonic stem cells.

Yet even as his commentary appeared, the New Scientist was reporting that researchers have removed stem cells from adult human hair follicles and converted them into skin grafts for victims of severe burns and ulcerated wounds.

There might be enough stem cells here to supply researchers for 10 years!

In other developments over the past two years:
  • Two studies published last December in Nature Medicine reported that non-embryonic stem cells injected into rodents can transform themselves naturally into neurons and insert themselves into the brain, giving hope to persons with Parkinson’s and other disorders. A third study found that injecting a chemical into damaged areas of rats’ brains stimulated stem cells to grow and differentiate into a massive number of normal, fully developed nerves. The cells repaired damage and restored mobility to the rodents. Ironically, it was funded in part by the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation which supports lifting the embryonic-stem-cell ban.
  • At least four rodent studies (some published and some not) and one pig study have shown that non-embryonic stem cells can be used to repair heart tissue in animals whose hearts had been intentionally damaged.
  • As reported in Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, rats with degraded retinas were injected with non-embryonic stem cells that traveled to the site of damage. There they showed signs of making connections with the optic nerve, which would be expected to improve or even restore vision.
  • Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers injected non-embryonic stem cells into the spinal fluid of paralyzed mice and rats, half of which partially or fully recovered. This paves the way for human trials for those afflicted with ALS and muscular dystrophy.
  • Cells from liposuctioned fat (our nation’s most plentiful resource) have been transformed into bone, muscle, cartilage, and mature fat cells, according to an article in the April issue of Tissue Engineering.

Sen. Mack’s commentary did allude to this study, but only to assert that "there is no conclusive proof that fat tissue really does contain stem cells." Wrong. "These are adipose-derived stem cells," the lead author of the study, UCLA assistant professor of plastic surgery Dr. Marc Hedrick, told me. In any case, even Sen. Mack unwittingly admitted that cells of some type of cell has been removed from adult tissue and converted into the same types of tissue that embryonic cells have been made into. For our purposes, who cares if they turn out to be stem cells or not?

Time and again, scientists involved in non-embryonic-stem-cell work, including even some who say they support lifting the funding ban, have commented that one of the important results of their and other’s findings is that they would bypass the emotion-charged embryonic-tissue debate.

Among them:

  • UCLA’s Hedrick told the Los Angeles Times his findings "could take the air right out of the debate about embryonic stem cells." The fat cells’ surprising usefulness, he said, "makes it hard to argue that we should use embryonic cells."
  • Dr. Adam J. Katz, a member of a research team separate from Hedrick’s that span fat into body tissues: "This discovery potentially could obviate the need for using fetal tissue."
  • Eric Olson, chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center: Almost "every other week there’s another interesting finding of adult cells turning into neurons or blood cells or heart muscle cells. Apparently our traditional views need to be reevaluated."
  • Ira Black of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, referring to his research showing that various adult cells could be teased into becoming neuronal ones: This "essentially circumvents all the ethical concerns with the use of fetal tissues."
  • Markus C. Grompe, a professor of molecular medical genetics at Oregon Health Sciences University: "This would suggest that maybe you don’t need any type of fetal stem cell at all — that our adult bodies continue to have stem cells that can do this stuff."
  • Dr. Neil Theise of the New York University School of Medicine and co-author of a stem-cell study declared, "This study provides the strongest evidence yet that the adult body harbors stem cells that are as flexible as embryonic stem cells."

While it’s true that 80-odd Nobel laureates have signed a letter supporting lifting the ban, claiming it’s "far too early to know whether adult stem cells are as promising as the cells from fertilized eggs," Dr. Donald Orlic of the National Genome Research Institute told NBC News in late March that "we are currently finding that these adult stem cells can function as well, perhaps even better than, embryonic stem cells." It’s also noteworthy that of those Nobel laureates, only 27 had science backgrounds and only two had backgrounds in embryology.

Yet the disinformation piles on like a collapsing slag heap, to where it’s utterly conflicting.

Thus William Safire, in his July 5 column stating, "I head a foundation that supports research in brain science, neuro-immunology and immuno-imaging," also says, "scientists may find, in time, that stem cells can be developed from adult cells rather than blastocysts [embryonic cells]."

It seems the foundation needs a new head, one with a bit of a science background.

You don’t "develop" an adult stem cell. Like blastocysts, they’re always there. The only scientific discussion is whether such cells are as readily harvested and converted into other types of cells as are embryonic ones.

And if it’s harvesting you’re talking about, nothing will ever compete with the non-embyronic stem cells removed from umbilical cords and placentas from babies born alive.

Umbilical cords: A virtually inexhaustable supply of stem cells

Companies like Viacell, Inc. of Boston have been extracting stem cells from human umbilical cords for years now. Recently New Jersey-based Anthrogenesis Corp. announced it had been able to collect 10 times as many stem cells from a single post-birth placenta as have been gathered from any other single source.

"These are the same type of cells used in fetal development, and we capture what’s left in placenta and umbilical cords," Cynthia Fisher, founder of Viacell, Inc. and its subsidiary, Viacord, Inc., told me.

Each year, over four million umbilical cords are simply discarded. Connected together, they would stretch from New York to Houston.

But such information seems to be more closely guarded than Britain’s Crown Jewels.

Consider the stem-cell report the National Institutes of Health just released.

NIH has long pushed for embryonic research funding, so it would be rather strange if it didn’t take this opportunity to do so as well.

Yet even the report admits: "Published scientific papers indicated that adult stem cells have been identified in brain, bone marrow, peripheral blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscle, epithelia of the skin and digestive system, cornea, dental pulp of the tooth, retina, liver, and pancreas."

Essentially, the places where stem cells have not been found are those where scientists haven’t looked.

So instead the report falls back on a mass of mush words like "it may be," and "it appears," along with such worthless assertions that: "It has not been demonstrated that one adult stem cell can be directed to develop into any cell type of the body." That’s absolutely true. It’s also absolutely true of embryonic cells, but don’t expect to read that in the report.

And yet.

Josef Mengele

Even were it to turn out that embryonic cells have no advantage over non-embryonic ones, shouldn’t pragmatism dictate that such research be given an equal chance? (The word "equal" is important, because private labs continue to legally conduct embryonic-cell research.)

After all, wouldn’t virtually any pro-lifer admit that the possibility of killing innocent children shouldn’t preclude an air strike against enemy strongholds?

Yet perhaps the strongest argument against lifting the funding ban is pragmatism.

Much of the current fear over therapeutic human biotechnology comes from angst over embryonic-stem-cell research, and it’s not just coming from abortion foes.

People are scared. Rightly or wrongly, use of embryonic cells invokes visions of Dr. Josef Mengele and a terrifying slippery slope towards playing around with human life.

It would be tragic if the fantastic results of non-embryonic stem-cell research were to be lost in a needless campaign to fund the embryonic variety with the unwilling subsidies of Americans whose objections are rooted in deeply held convictions.

We must ensure full public support for stem-cell research and all the promise it holds. That can’t be done unless we maintain the taxpayer-funding ban.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on biotechnology.