Stemming the Tide

January 01, 2001  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Stem Cells

Michael Fumento, in "Stemming the Tide" (July/August 2001), proves guilty of the sin of which he accuses the advocates of "embryo-exploitation": he distorts data to serve his own "disinformation campaign."

I am quoted as saying that our research "provides the strongest evidence yet that the adult body harbors stem cells that are as flexible as embryonic stem cells." I believe this statement to be true. However, Mr. Fumento then presents this as evidence that we don't need to further investigate embryonic stem cells, something no serious and active researcher in the adult stem cell field would claim.

First, it is entirely premature to predict which avenue of research, in the long run, will produce the therapies we dream of. As my quote suggests, I am perhaps the most optimistic of adult stem cell researchers, but even I would not present them as already accomplished fact the way Mr. Fumento does.

Second, and more crucial, for adult stem cells to be useful we must discover how to make them behave in ways that embryonic stem cells already do. Eliminating embryonic research will keep us groping in the dark for the necessary mechanisms and thereby delay progress by years, if not decades. The two fields are not, as Mr. Fumento deceptively presents, independent, either/or propositions. They are mutually interdependent. Our therapeutic successes will completely depend on both avenues of research.

Neil Theise, M.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Pathology
New York University School of Medicine

Mr. Fumento replies:

It's convenient for Dr. Theise to say he's "perhaps the most optimistic of adult stem cell researchers" and then go on to argue for the necessity of embryonic cell research. Actually, the most optimistic researchers are found at the myriad private companies that are making remarkable progress with non-embryonic stem cells, many of whom are adamant that embryonic cells are not needed. As Anton-Lewis Usala, M.D., founder and chief scientific officer of Encelle, Inc., recently testified before Congress, "There is little data to support, or infer, that embryonic human stem cells have any advantages over adult human stem cells in medical research." He is a "serious and active researcher in the adult stem cell field."

Embryonic cells have potential; non-embryonic cells have a proven track record. Peer-reviewed medical literature lists about one hundred non-embryonic stem cell experiments on animals that have shown success against a vast array of diseases including Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's, paralysis, and many more. (For a list updated through June, see

Lab animal physiology is similar enough to our own that we can't assume that many of these results won't translate into results for humans, but in any case therapies using differentiated non-embryonic stem cells are in human trials already. For example, Modex Therapeutics of Switzerland is in the second of a three-phase human trial to grow skin grafts from stem cells found in hair follicles. Thirty-six patients with diabetic ulcers have already benefitted from EpiDex, and regulatory approval could come next year.

Successful in vivo applications of embryonic stem cells, by contrast, are few and far between. This hardly supports the assertion that, "for adult stem cells to be useful we must discover how to make them behave in ways that embryonic stem cells already do." To the contrary, for embryonic cells to be useful we need to make them behave in ways that we've already gotten adult stem cells to do.

There is no law against embryonic cell research. The "problem" is that venture capitalists have overwhelmingly put their money into non-embryonic research precisely because it appears to have the most promise. What's behind the push for even more federal funding for embryonic cell research is not science but a desperate desire to feed from the public trough.