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MEDICAL-RESEARCH insiders know that embryonic-stem-cell technol ogy is proving a dead end — Dr. Bernadine Healy, a former director of the National Institutes of Health and once an ES-cell-research enthusiast, calls it “obsolete.” But the Obama administration has opened wide the federal funding floodgates — the triumph of a big special-interest PR and lobbying campaign.
In fact, the research will line the pockets of a relatively few individuals — at considerable cost for the rest of us, since the funding means billions that won’t go to more promising areas.
Though ES cells have long been touted as the miracle just down the road, researchers keep driving into big potholes. For starters, there’s the rejection problem: Your body naturally attacks foreign cells, even ones that might help you. So cell recipients must permanently use dangerous immunosuppressive drugs.
Further, the cells have a nasty tendency to become cancerous or to form teratomas — meaning “monster tumors.” While usually benign, these can grow larger than a football and often contain hair and teeth. Yech!
Perhaps that problem can be solved someday, but even University of Wisconsin scientist James Thomson, the creator of the first human ES-cell line, says treatments and cures could be decades away.
Conversely, adult stem cells (AS cells, meaning any naturally found stem cell not from embryos), are far more controllable (that is, easier to direct to become the desired cell type) and have thus been saving lives for decades, via (for example) bone-marrow transplants. More recently, AS cells have treated illnesses including cancers, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, immunodeficiency disorders and neural degenerative diseases.
Plus, AS cells are often “self-donated” — eliminating rejection problems (though AS rejection even from outside donors has turned out to be relatively minimal).
Researchers originally found promise in ES cells mainly because they thought only ES cells could be converted into all types of mature cells. But since 2002, dozens of published studies have shown the same can be done with a vast array of AS cells.
Then, two years ago, scientists discovered how to make “induced pluripotent stem cells” from human-skin cells. These are just as flexible as embryonic ones — but, as with AS cells, have neither the health drawbacks nor the moral problems associated with the embryonic variety.
In short, other lines of inquiry are unquestionably far more promising than ES cells — yet this research will now get a big funding boost. Why?
Basically, the lobby for ES-cell research succeeded in shutting down critics (or even questions) by presenting the question as “medical progress versus pro-life politics” (as one Newsweek cover put it).
The media, observes the Genetics & Society Center, consistently squeeze all reporting into a prefab story line of “scientists hoping to save lives versus opponents of abortion rights who see destroying stem cells as equivalent to taking a life.”
And it’s a very wealthy lobby. Research funding can generate tremendous income with no treatments, because human and animal ES cells, and materials and techniques used to manipulate them, can all be patented. Licensing fees make them worth a fortune.
One holder of many important ES-cell-research patents charges $75,000 to more than $250,000 per license, plus annual payments and royalties, The Wall Street Journal reports. “They clearly see this as the goose that lays the golden egg,” an ES-cell researcher told the paper.
All this drives what wheelchair-bound medical activist Jim Kelly calls “the embryonic-research economic juggernaut.”
The lobby displayed its awesome power in 2004 when backers of California’s Proposition 71 outspent opponents by 60 to 1. The payoff: $3 billion shifted from taxpayer pockets to ES-cell researchers.
As journalist Neil Munroe has documented, researchers who cash in routinely present themselves — with enthusiastic media help — as neutral parties. Best known is Dr. Irving Weissman, director of Stanford University’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, a frequent critic of AS-cell research who’s made millions from ES-cell patents. In 2004, he appeared in TV commercials pleading for a “YES” vote on Prop 71 as “an MD” who “took an oath that the very highest priority was the treatment of patients.” Prop 71 now funds his institute.
California’s boondoggle has been the largest. But many states (including New Jersey, New York and Connecticut) now fund ES-cell research, and the feds — pushed by the same powerful lobby — will now spend extravagantly.
“There’s a lot of pressure to give ES researchers what they want,” says David Hess, a neurologist at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. But “everybody is fighting over the same pie” — a dime spent on dead-end ES work is a dime unavailable for research, stem cell or otherwise, with true promise to heal the sick.
“People are dying, and they’re going to continue to die, and people are paralyzed and will continue to stay paralyzed,” says Jim Kelly, “all of them a victim of the embryonic-research economic juggernaut.”