Potential Dupes:
The Public’s Willful Ignorance about ESCR

Stem Cell Research — By on October 23, 2006 at 2:30 am

Over at RedBlueChristian I made a comment about there being no empirical evidence that embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) will ever produce a cure for anything, much less a spinal cord injury. Andrew P. replied that I might be overstating the speculative nature of the field of research. In rebuttal he alluded to a John Hopkins study in which embryonic stem cells were used to aid in the recovery from paralysis in rats and adds.

This isn’t a guarantee that this therapy will every work in practice for humans for a given kind of injury or disease. But it certainly is empirical evidence of a (partial) cure, is it not?

Actually, it is not. Not only do such studies not provide empirical evidence for human cures but they rarely even provide empirical evidence for cures in rats. The most that can be said is that the empirical evidence supports the results of the experiment. Attempting to extrapolate from such meager animal studies to producing cures in humans is nothing more than a blind leap of faith.
Before any research using embryonic stem cells can reach the level of “empirical evidence of a (partial) cure” it has to overcome the currently insurmountable problem of tumor formation. As James Sherley, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, notes, the question “How soon could human embryonic stem cells be used for cures?” is pre-empted by the question “Could human embryonic stem cells ever be used for cures?”:

When the errant biological properties of human embryonic stem cells are considered, it is difficult to foresee them ever being used directly as cures in children or adults. This promise was the earliest misleading misinformation from proponents of human embryo research. Because many factors that guide the normal development of embryonic cells are absent in mature tissues, embryonic stem cells placed in adult tissues produce malformed tissues that are cancerous. So, figuring out how to use human embryonic stem cells directly by transplantation into patients is tantamount to solving the cancer problem.

In other words, embryonic stem cell research will start producing cures as soon as we figure out how to cure cancer. Sherley thinks that “the public largely believes that developing therapies from human embryonic stem cells may be difficult, but not impossible” and that if they if they only “understood that no wonder therapies were likely to come from embryonic stem cells, the discussion would be over, and human embryos would be safer.”
Unfortunately, this is not likely to happen. Because the scientific evidence clearly weighed against ESCR, the issue had to be reframed as a political issue: the fundamentalist pro-lifers who choose embryos over sick people versus the progressively minded acolytes of science who wish to pursue research that has great biomedical “potential.”
This misuse of “potential” has reached the level of Orwellian doublespeak. Imagine if in the 1960’s scientists at NASA had advocated spending less money on Saturn V rockets in order to use the funds for the an anti-gravity device because it held more “potential.” A similar absurdity is occurring now where adult stem cells—which are being used for treatment of diseases– are considered to have less “potential” than ESCs which have never advanced to the human testing stage – and likely never will.
Empirical evidence against ESCR is all but ignored in favor of the hype and faith-based speculation over its miraculous potential. Just today I watched political campaign ads that trumpeted how the candidate would spend millions of taxpayer dollars on ESCR while in the Washington Post an article noted that “Scientists have long feared that human embryonic stem cells could turn into tumors, because of their pliability.” Contrary to Lincoln’s claim, as long as people choose to be willfully ignorant, you can fool most all of the people all of the time.



  • http://angelweave.mu.nu hln

    This is a big, big hot political issue in Missouri right now. They’ve got commercials running during the World Series with Sheryl Crow and Michael J. Fox. You’ve got all these fresh-faced people who talk about the opposition trying to destroy hope. As if stem cell research were the panacea, and it’s at the top of the hill, but ignorant opponents won’t allow us to climb that hill.
    Never is there any mention of embryonic versus adult stem cell research in the television or print ads. http://www.nocloning.org is the argument usually presented, and that too is “dumbed down” and tailored to fit the language of the propisition rather than furthering public debate of embryo vs. “could be, maybe, possibly, someday cure.”
    hln

  • Dr Mike

    Joe:
    If some are to be derisively termed “fundamentalist pro-lifers,” should we not at least accurately term or describe the opposition by a corresponding appellation?
    I think the label “embryo jihadists” might be appropriate: such people are, after all, in a spiritual war against the life of the yet-to-be-delivered infant. All warfare is ultimately spiritual and, since “jihad” means just that, attaching the modifier “embryo” would properly limit the scope of their warfare.

  • Scott

    hln, I suspect that the ads running in Missouri that favor ESCR are motivated more by politics than by science. The Senate race there is tight, and liberals are pulling out all of the stops. I have not seen the ads, since I don’t live in Missouri,but the topic usually touts the advantage of “science” over emotion, religion, etc. Much like the origins debate that takes place at this site on a regular basis.
    Science and politics are more dangerous than religion and politics. Witness eugenics with its emphasis on genetic purity. Introducing “science” into the public debate usually creates very bad public policy. Does anyone remember acid rain? How about alar on our apples? Global warming? Freon? How about mercury in our vaccines, not to mention in our fillings?
    Ignored by the scientifically enlightened citizens are the successes in non-embryonic stem cell treatment. Why is it ignored? Maybe because opposition to ESCR is based on a particularly religious view of life, its value and when it starts. And that is a most emotional and inconvenient discussion.

  • George

    Without getting into the politics of the thing (I am against killing embryos, period), the hype given embryonic stem cell research is most unfortunate from a scientific perspective.
    There’s a lot of money in the field right now, and the grant proposers want more. Lots more. In fact, we watched the same hamster dance with AIDs funding in the 80′s, when the funding was supplied on the basis of political howling and far exceeded all the qualified scientists and postdocs that could possibly do quality work. Academic prestige in the sciences is largely based on publications (for which postdocs and grad students need to be funded) and grant awards (at Purdue in the early 80′s, the university skimmed 50% right off the top of every grant for turning on the lights and the heat, Northeastern was worse, being private). I’m not saying any of this is necessarily bad, but it sure affects the politics.
    Hence, we see the usual parade of the pitiful and frightening to touch the public nerve. Everybody loved Superman and everybody has known someone with cancer and/or fears it. That “cures” for such things are nowhere close to anybody’s prediction horizon matters little.
    It’s stupid really, and the people who fall for it are either woefully ignorant or see it as one more political bludgeon with which to beat the “theocrats”. Down the memory hole is the 80′s Time cover announcing monoclonal antibodies as the next great “cure” for everything that ails and the fountain of youth.
    Tiresome, really. Magic doesn’t work.

  • http://www.sufficientscruples.com Kevin T. Keith

    It seems to me a very strange argument against any scientific project that it’s a long shot. Those are often the most interesting and the most valuable projects, and they are the ones that most need basic-science funding (since commercial funding, almost by definition, accrues only to projects with short-term profit potential). You ought to choose your long shots carefully, but in this case virtually the entire biological science community is agreed that this one is worth pursuing. Given that there’s no reason not to do the research, we might as well do it even if it is a long shot.
    To clarify that point, it should be recognized that the idiosyncratic hysterias of a minority of religious extremists are not a reason to do or not do anything. Be as upset or obsessive as you like; in the end you have nothing to assert against this research other than a bizarrely imaginative and absurd assignment of moral status – which you claim to pull out of an ancient religious text – to an entity that possesses no faculties or features of moral significance. You’re welcome to believe that yourself but nobody is required to take it seriously, still less to set national policy, and forego possible medical beneifts, for that reason.
    And, too, this pretense of the careful evaluation of scientific potential of various research strategies is as barren as the moral whims that motivate it. The organizations who are so het up about the awful waste of energy on “impossible” research on stem cells have nothing to say about any other line of research, possible or impossible (other than their other perennial obsession – evolution). They actually have no interest in – and no competence to evaluate – the likelihood of that research. The issue is a red herring. You’d be even more upset if the research were already proven to work. The question of likelihood – which can only be resolved by more research – is merely a seemingly-rational cover for an irrational religious impulse that you seek to impose as universal policy.
    But those are not reasons, they are obsessions. Policy choices require reasons.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    This is only an argument for depoliticizing the issue and issuing grants only on objective criteria which the scientific establishment is already pretty good at. Ironically the stem cell research ban on Federal dollars has created various state and private programs that are dedicated to stem cell research.
    If the research is as unlikely to produce results as you say then the ban is probably causing more dollars to flow into research. If there was no ban ESC would have to compete with all other types of grant applications and if ESC research really has so little promise it would lose more often than it would win. On the other hand, with state and private organizations dedicated to ESCR what happens is grant applications only compete against each other…the money is dedicated to ESCR even if other avenues have more promise.
    Of course Michael Kinsley showed how this is all nothing more than absurdity. Embryos are destroyed wholesale in the fertility industry and there is no serious effort to do anything about it (here Roe.v.Wade wouldn’t apply since IV fertilization happens outside the body so there is no violation of privacy)….in fact the fertility industry is often given kudos.
    So its unethical to perform research on a few frozen embryos to save lives (yes there’s no guarantee but no one is doing ESCR to make better cosmetics) but thousands can be flushed down the drain without even a yawn for the sake of a procedure that is about as optional as you can get.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    There’s a lot of money in the field right now, and the grant proposers want more. Lots more. In fact, we watched the same hamster dance with AIDs funding in the 80′s, when the funding was supplied on the basis of political howling and far exceeded all the qualified scientists and postdocs that could possibly do quality work.
    Even in such cases, though, the direction of research wasn’t dictated by activists. It’s not like AIDS research dollars came with the conditition that they be spent trying only to find combinations of vitamins and herbs to fight HIV. There is no way to predict where research will take you unless you do it so just as it is proper to be skeptical of claims that this will produce cures it is equally proper to doubt that Joe has the knowledge to say that this won’t. I would suspect that ESCR would end up delievering less on its promise of miracle cures of specific diseases but will produce more insight on fundamental biology. In other words the cancer problem may keep ESCR from letting us grow replacement organs in vats but may probably produce powerful insights in treating cancer itself.

  • Ed “What the” Heckman

    Keith,
    The argument is not that researching how embryonic cells work is bad. It’s that pushing and funding ESC research as a cure, and as a result, ignoring and underfunding much more promising research is bad.
    Here is a concrete example:
    Type I Diabetes (insulin dependent) is one of the major diseases, affecting millions of people. It occurs when the cells which produce insulin die. The most common underlying cause is the body’s defenses actually attacking those cells, i.e., it’s an autoimmune disease.
    Diabetes researcher Dr. Denise Faustman has managed to successfully cure diabetes in mice. See here and here for more details. (The insulin producing system in mice is most similar to humans. Larger mammals, such as dogs, cats and even other primates cannot be used for research because they can’t get Type I Diabetes due to differences in their insulin producing systems.) She did it by figuring out how to kill the defenses which destroying the insulin producing cells. Then she discovered that Adult Stem Cells sometimes migrated from the spleen and cured the mice with no further intervention on her part.
    Of course, the followup experiments were to isolate the Adult Stem Cells from the spleen and use them to repair the insulin producing cells. Voila! A cure! That is huge news.
    But when it came time to work on researching the treatment in humans, she ran into a huge roadblock: funding.
    The following quotes come from Iacocca Foundations’s web site.

    But when Dr. Faustman, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, went looking for money to finance the next stage of her research, testing the ideas with diabetes patients, she could find no backers. Pharmaceutical companies turned her down. So did the Juvenile Diabetes Research Association.

    The Juvenile Diabetes Research Association is the big kahuna of diabetes research funding. They completely dwarf everyone else.

    The reason for the resistance, Dr. Faustman and some colleagues believe, was simple: her findings, which raise the possibility that an inexpensive, readily available drug might effectively treat Type 1 or juvenile diabetes, challenge widespread assumptions. Many diabetes researchers insist that a cure lies instead in research on stem cells and islet cell transplants.

    In other words, a proven cure in mice with huge promise for humans could not get funded because it wasn’t Embryonic Stem Cell research.

    Dr. Faustman’s story, scientists say, illustrates the difficulties that creative scientists can have when their work questions conventional wisdom and runs into entrenched interests. But if she is correct, scientists will also have to reconsider many claims for embryonic stem cells as a cure for diabetes, and perhaps for other diseases.

    In short, those pushing Embryonic Stem Cells as a cure have become such a one note chorus that they refuse to recognize hard scientific evidence of better options for cures. The result is unconscionable delays or repression of badly needed cures due not to legitimate scientific advances, but to political biases.

  • Alexander Scott

    What this argument boils down to is whether we owe any obligation to unborn human beings. Humans in the US have no inherent legal rights until the moment they are born. But do we have any obligations (moral, ethical, or otherwise) to unborn humans aside from legal rights? A lot of people talk about stewardship of the environment for future children, so there is certainly a respected precedent for owing unborn humans some degree of respect and protection.
    If we have zero obligation to unborn humans, then we should use them a parts for research even if the chance of something useful being discovered is one in a million.
    If we do have an obligation to unborn humans (the right not to be killed is probably the most basic) then we should not use them as parts for research even if the chance of something useful being discovered is one.
    All other arguments are obscuring the issue.
    To Boonton – it is my understanding that fertility clinics can’t dispose of unused embryos; they must be frozen and kept. I don’t support the practice of making additional embryos that are not implanted, but we have to fight the battles we can win. Right now we might be able to stop the public funding of use of embryos as research parts but not be able to fight the making of embryos to sit in freezers. I’m not anti-science; I am a scientist. Ethics boards are a limitation on the progress of science and are meant to keep science from being misused. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research see an ethical issue involved and that’s what we are arguing about.

  • Nick

    Joe,
    In accusing the supporters of ES cell research of oversimplifying for political purposes, you appear to have done exactly the same thing. You mention that uncontrolled proliferation of ES cells can result in tumors, but you don’t mention the possibility of controlled proliferation and differentiation as a solution. You don’t mention that research into the factors controlling ES cell differentiation is currently very active. You don’t tell us whether the ES cells used in the Hopkins study formed tumors, but by reading your post one might be left with the impression that it is inevitable that they would.
    Since you didn’t link to the comment, I am guessing that the paper in question is Deshpande et al (2006) Ann Neurol 60:32-44. Significantly, the researchers in the Hopkins study did exactly what you don’t mention. They used known factors to direct differentiation of the ES cells into “committed motor neuron progenitors.” Axons of the transplanted cells formed functional neuromuscular junctions and produced partial recovery from paralysis, as indicated by weight gain (which indirectly measures mobility) and grip strength (which directly measures recovery from paralysis).
    p.s. It’s “alluded,” not “eluded.”

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    I think Joe suffers from the same problem that most on this list suffer from (including myself)…we do not have the knowledge necessary to make fully informed evaluations of whether or not stem cell research has or does not have promise.
    Take Ed’s example with the mice. There’s plenty of things that appear to be cures in animals that turn out to be duds when tried on humans. There very well may be good reason for the diabetic research community to feel that stem cells are still the best hope for a cure DESPITE Faustman’s research.
    In fact, considering that billions are spent on diabetic treatments it seems surprising that some profit hungry pharma company wouldn’t toss a few million at Faustman just on the off chance he gives them the patent on the cure to diabetes. But then the people in charge of spending millions of R&D dollars are required to have a lot more expertise than we are to just comment on a blog.
    Alex-
    To Boonton – it is my understanding that fertility clinics can’t dispose of unused embryos; they must be frozen and kept. I don’t support the practice of making additional embryos that are not implanted, but we have to fight the battles we can win. Right now we might be able to stop the public funding of use of embryos as research parts but not be able to fight the making of embryos to sit in freezers.
    No fertility clinics will keep embryos frozen for two reasons. One is that there is a high miscarriage rate so they need to have a supply of ‘spares’. The other is customer service centered, parents often want the ‘spares’ because they want to keep the option open to return later and have another kid out of the batch. They can and do thaw them out and chuck them, however.
    Also freezing is not some type of suspended animation that works indefinately. Each year spent in the freezer reduces the chance of an embryo being able to be implanted. So the freezer is not a safe environment to keep an embryo so the ethical problem cannot be solved by just keeping all the embryos frozen until some science fiction future arrives allowing all the embryos to be grown in artificial wombs or whatnot.

  • giggling

    Kevin T. Keith
    To clarify that point, it should be recognized that the idiosyncratic hysterias of a minority of religious extremists are not a reason to do or not do anything. … You’re welcome to believe that yourself but nobody is required to take it seriously, still less to set national policy, and forego possible medical beneifts, for that reason.
    …Yawn.
    Nick:
    Significantly, the researchers in the Hopkins study did exactly what you don’t mention.
    Very relevant information. It’s unclear to me whether Joe meant that the leap of faith regarding the transferability of treatments on animals to humans was due to the problem of tumor control or if tumor control was only one of many factors, but in either case this is interesting.
    Boonton:
    “There very well may be good reason for the diabetic research community to feel that stem cells are still the best hope for a cure DESPITE Faustman’s research…. But then the people in charge of spending millions of R&D dollars are required to have a lot more expertise than we are to just comment on a blog.”
    You should know this is a minor cop-out. Laypeople will never know all of the relevant information useful for making an informed opinion. But we should nonetheless learn all that we can and make the best judgment based on the information we have. This is what every commentor on this blog, including yourself, does and should do.
    So, while there “very well may be good reason for the diabetic research community to feel that stem cells are still the best hope for a cure DESPITE Faustman’s research,” unless you (or someone) show me the reason, I won’t have any reason to believe it and so I concur with Ed “What the” Heckman’s judgment.
    His example to me seems clear and persuasive.

  • Nick

    giggling:
    The diabetes situation seems to be more complex than Ed “What the” Heckman implies. If you have access to the journal Science, check out the 24 March, 2006 issue. It contains three studies that attempted to replicate Faustman’s 2003 study, as well as a news report summarizing the results. The bottom line seems to be that the more recent studies showed some reversal of diabetes in the mice but no contribution from the transplanted spleen cells (i.e. the “adult” stem cells). In other words, the explanation proposed by Faustman and trumpeted by Ed appears to be incorrect. Unfortunately, the most likely mechanism for diabetes correction in the mouse appears to be highly toxic in humans.
    Faustman apparently disagrees with the new studies and the jury may still be out. But I suspect that the uncertainty regarding the mechanism behind the diabetes correction, together with the toxicity of some of the substances used in the protocol, would go a long way towards explaining why her proposal to test human patients weren’t funded. The grant reviewers probably determined that more basic animal research was required before experimenting on humans, and obviously several groups were able to get funding to follow up her animal studies. There’s no need to invoke some grand conspiracy among ES cell researchers.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    You should know this is a minor cop-out. Laypeople will never know all of the relevant information useful for making an informed opinion. But we should nonetheless learn all that we can and make the best judgment based on the information we have. This is what every commentor on this blog, including yourself, does and should do.
    True but the fact is we will not. It is impossible for us on the spur of the moment to become experts in the field. There may be some people here who are experts in the field but we are in the same position, we have to choose whether or not to trust them.
    So, while there “very well may be good reason for the diabetic research community to feel that stem cells are still the best hope for a cure DESPITE Faustman’s research,” unless you (or someone) show me the reason, I won’t have any reason to believe it and so I concur with Ed “What the” Heckman’s judgment.
    Hang on there, you are presenting an argument that Faustman has found a cure to diabetes but can’t get funding because the establishment is so convinced ESCR is the key that they won’t fund anything else no matter how blatently obvious it is. If that’s the case then we are in deeper trouble than can be solved by simply giving Faustman some grants.
    However in order to establish this if we are not going to become experts in this field over the next 48 hours we could ask some common sense questions like are pharma companies who could reap billions from curing diabetes leaving Faustman on the table because they too just love the idea of sticking it to the pro-lifers with ESCR that they have forgotten about profits?
    There’s more, because of the Federal restrictions labs taking gov’t money that still want to do ESCR with their own money have to keep the funds seperated. This basically means you have to have two labs…one that is free of ESCR for government money and the other to do the ESCR. So when some scientist comes to his boss with a bright idea for research that involves embryos the first thing that is going to go off in the boss’s head is that this is going to cost a lot of money. Again are organizations so committed to a ‘politically correct’ desire to stick it to pro-lifers that they will waste their own money?

  • Alexander Scott

    Boonton -
    You are right that embryos can’t be stored forever in the freezer. Some are “adopted” though by couples wanting to conceive and willing to have other people’s children rather than creating their own. This is different from “flushing them down the drain”, though I still do not support the practice of creating life to sit on a shelf.
    My point is still that some research is unethical no matter what the potential gains. Embryonic stem cell research may someday yield tremendous benefits but that would never justify the taking of a human life for spare parts. There are surely ethical routes to the same end, such as further investigation of adult stem cells or finding a non-lethal way to harvest embryonic cells – the recent paper on acquiring ESC in a non-lethal way was highly misleading, but perhaps there is a non-harmful way to get those cells.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Very, very few are ‘adopted’ from the freezer. The reality is most embryos that end up in a freezer will get ‘flushed down the drain’ so to speak.
    I’m not unsympathetic to the ethical argument but in the larger context of the IVF industry I find it rather absurd. It’s a bit like a campaign to outlaw transfat in matzah balls in 1933′s Germany on the count that heart disease can be deadly to Jews.

  • Troy

    Sorry for the late reply, but I wanted to respond the first few post by hln and Scott regarding Missouri politics.
    While embryonic stem sell research and cloning is impacting the campaigns of individual candidates, Missouri Amendment 2 is on the ballot, and would make constitutional SCNT for research purposes. There is a major research organization in KC that has promised a multi-million dollar expansion of its facility, and accompanying new jobs, but only if the amendment passes. Also, I believe one of the research departments at Washington University in St Louis has moved to somewhere in California because their ability to do embryonic stem sell research has been threatened by previously proposed laws in Missouri. So, in Missouri right now this is a political beast all its own.
    And hln is right, the majority of information provided by both sides is very vague. In essence, amendment supporters say it will ban cloning, while those against the amendment say it will legalize cloning. Neither side explains themselves very well. When you find a third party trying to explain the amendment, they generally use so much dogmatic language they don’t come across as trustworthy.
    The language of the amendment can be found at http://www.sos.mo.gov/elections/2006petitions/ppStemCell.asp. Essentially, it allows creation of a clone using SCNT, but bans implantation of said clone into a uterus. Though it is scientifically a clone at creation, it is not legally a clone until implanted into a uterus. Which makes http://nospeedbumps.com/?p=1067 even more interesting to ponder…
    IMO; Even if you remove the moral issue, the complexity of the amendment makes it a monster that should never see the light of day. Just look at the trouble we have agreeing on the meaning of the Bill of Rights.

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