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.