Celling Lies, More Spurious Stem-cell Claims

September 25, 2002  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  National Review Online  ·  Biotech

"Electricity Appears Worthless for Illumination." If you saw such a headline you’d be rather skeptical, wouldn’t you? Yet here we go again with another massively publicized study purporting to show that adult stem cells don’t work, notwithstanding that they’ve been saving lives for over a decade now.

"Promise of Adult Stem Cells Put in Doubt," proclaimed UPI. "Study Deals Blow to Abilities of Adult Stem Cells," declared Scientific American in its online publication. "Study Finds Adult Blood Stem Cells Will Not Transform into Other Tissue Cells," insisted the Associated Press.

These are EpiDex™ skin grafts, cultured from hair follicle stem cells. Already available in Europe, they are living proof that adult stem cells have gone far beyond the "potential" stage.

The fuss concerns an article in the highly respected journal Science detailing efforts of Stanford researchers to trace the development of blood stem cells after placing them into mice whose bone marrow had been destroyed. They reported that blood stem cells replenished marrow but appeared worthless for creating other tissues.

"Blood-forming stem cells from adults make blood," primary researcher Irving Weissman insisted to UPI. "They don’t make brain; they don’t make heart muscle or any of these things."

That’s pretty smug, coming from a scientist who should know a single study never proves anything. As it happens, a report published in Nature Medicine in November 2000 showed that such cells when injected into mice rebuilt liver tissue. A minor co-author of the piece was named Irving Weissman.

Weissman’s sureness was just for show.

Indeed, "The Stanford paper is the one at odds with the bulk of the published literature," Indiana State University biologist David Prentice told me.

While nobody knows yet just how capable non-embryonic stem cells will prove, we know they will be extremely useful because they have been.

Ever hear of bone marrow or umbilical-cord-blood transplants? It’s the stem cells in the marrow and blood that makes them work. They’ve been used therapeutically since the 1980s and now some 70 different diseases, primarily forms of leukemia, are treated with them.

True, these comprise direct infusions rather than the next step of "reprogramming" the stem cells outside the body to make them into various types of mature cells.

But there’s tremendous progress here, too. As of last year, over 30 different anti-cancer applications alone involving non-embryonic stem cell therapies on humans had been reported in peer-reviewed medical literature. Over 100 non-embryonic-stem-cell experiments in animals have shown success against a vast array of diseases.

The very newspapers that now pooh-pooh adult stem cells were only days earlier reporting on the almost-miraculous cure of a Dutch child afflicted with "bubble boy syndrome." His immune system was worthless. But it was restored when stem cells from his marrow were removed, cultured, and injected back into him.

Even if blood stem cells were worthless for tissue, we’d still have other types of stem cells that have been cultivated not just from marrow and umbilical cords but also from placentas, amniotic fluid, skin, brains, spinal cords, dental pulp, muscles, blood vessels, corneas, retinas, livers, pancreases, hair follicles, and even liposuctioned fat.

Catherine Verfaillie and her co-workers at the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute recently published a report in Science’s main competitor, Nature, suggesting that a certain type of marrow stem cells may give rise to almost any type of tissue in the body. They have isolated them from the marrow of mice, rats and people and so far have transformed them into cells of blood, the gut, liver, lung, brain, and other organs.

Yet time and again a single study like the Stanford one is shoved forward to show that non-embryonic-stem-cell therapy is the biological version of cold fusion. Why?

Some of the media coverage may reflect sheer ignorance. But Science and Weissman know better. They’re both part of a deliberate disinformation campaign by those who see embryonic stem cell research and non-embryonic stem cell research locked in mortal combat.

The worse the non-embryonics look, the stronger the case for using embryonic stem cells. With every breakthrough in non-embryonic research comes the need to turn up the screech knob on the disinformation box.

That’s because while the government can make grants on a whim, venture capital flows towards success. Thus almost all capital is going to non-embryonic research. Those working with embryonic cells are desperate for government funds.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Dr. Michael D. West, head of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., told the AP that the Stanford study indicates "stem cells from the bone marrow will not be a practical source for many cell types needed" to treat disease. That is, it wouldn’t be surprising if the AP had told you West’s company does research with embryonic stem cells.

Just as a 30-year-old panhandler will claim to be a Vietnam vet to shake money out of your pockets, those desperate for funding are obviously not above misrepresenting research to keep their labs running.

But whatever the promises of embryonic research, the actual applications are coming from non-embryonic stem cells. The miracles they have already performed are but little compared to those of which they are capable. We dare not let that progress be hamstrung by the politics of pork.