A week ago, AP Science Writer Malcolm Ritter committed a serious act of journalism by telling readers what is really going on in stem cell science. It ought to be required reading for the Obama administration, which seems to be making a crusade out of human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) while acting to stifle what appears to be significant progress in adult stem cell research (ASCR).
The amazing title of the AP reporter's article is "Adult stem cell research far ahead of embryonic." Given the establishment press's years-long favoritism towards hESCR going back at least to George W. Bush's 2001 announcement limiting federal government involvement in that area, it's enough to make you wonder if Ritter knew that his editors were on vacation or away on other business on August 2.
Here are just some of the exemplary paragraphs from Ritter's long report:
... For all the emotional debate that began about a decade ago on allowing the use of embryonic stem cells, it's adult stem cells that are in human testing today. An extensive review of stem cell projects and interviews with two dozen experts reveal a wide range of potential treatments.
... Adult stem cells are being studied in people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, heart attacks and diabetes. Some early results suggest stem cells can help some patients avoid leg amputation. Recently, researchers reported that they restored vision to patients whose eyes were damaged by chemicals.
Apart from these efforts, transplants of adult stem cells have become a standard lifesaving therapy for perhaps hundreds of thousands of people with leukemia, lymphoma and other blood diseases.
... Embryonic cells may indeed be used someday to grow replacement tissue or therapeutic material for diseases like Parkinson's or diabetes. Just on Friday, a biotech company said it was going ahead with an initial safety study in spinal cord injury patients. Another is planning an initial study in eye disease patients later this year.
But in the near term, embryonic stem cells are more likely to pay off as lab tools, for learning about the roots of disease and screening potential drugs.
... Some of the new approaches, like the long-proven treatments, are based on the idea that stem cells can turn into other cells. Einhorn said the ankle-repair technique, for example, apparently works because of cells that turn into bone and blood vessels. But for other uses, scientists say they're harnessing the apparent abilities of adult stem cells to stimulate tissue repair, or to suppress the immune system.
"That gives adult stem cells really a very interesting and potent quality that embryonic stem cells don't have," says Rocky Tuan of the University of Pittsburgh.
Though he alludes to the concept in the bolded sentence above, one word missing from Ritter's report is "potency," which in stem cell science refers to a cell's ability to create unrelated types of cells. The Mayo Clinic describes the status of adult stem cells thusly:
... it was thought that stem cells residing in the bone marrow could give rise only to blood cells. However, emerging evidence suggests that adult stem cells may be more versatile than previously thought and able to create unrelated types of cells after all. For instance, bone marrow stem cells may be able to create muscle cells. This research has led to early-stage clinical trials to test usefulness and safety in people.
Mayo also notes that "Researchers have reported being able to transform regular adult cells into stem cells in laboratory studies. By altering the genes in the adult cells, researchers were able to reprogram the cells to act similarly to embryonic stem cells."
There was a time when "pluripotency," the ability of a stem cell to give rise to any kind of human cell, was thought to be the sole province of hESCR. That may still conceivably be true, but if enough adult cells of different types can be coaxed into creating other types of cells, they may be able to cover the gamut of human tissue even if none are ever induced into true pluripotency. Besides, some scientists are saying that true pluripotency from adult stem cells is not that far away.
So remind me, if hESCR has such limited use, why did President Obama make such a big deal of reversing President Bush's Executive Order, thereby allowing federal funds to go into ESCR, while proclaiming that "ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology"? Perhaps he can explain to Malcolm Ritter how he knows that adult stem cells are Republican, and embryonic ones are Democratic.
Graphic found at the Stem Cell Blog.
Cross-posted at BizyBlog.com.