Bioethicist: Lots of 'hype' in embryonic stem cell research

WASHINGTON — The demand for more human embryos and money to underwrite research on them is spreading the false impression the United States is falling behind in stem cell research, a leading pro-life bioethicist says.

"In fact, the U.S. leads the world, not just on embryonic stem cell, but on all stem cell, studies," said David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council (FRC) and one of the United States' experts in the fields of cloning, stem cell research and bioethics.

Prentice tried to clear up the misinformation on cloning, embryonic stem cell and adult stem cell research at a FRC policy lecture titled "The Audacity of Hype: Embryonic Stem Cells Wasting Taxpayer Lives and Wasting Taxpayer Dollars."

"Unfortunately, what you tend to get, certainly in the mass media, is the hype. And you don't tend to get the actual facts [of stem cell research]," Prentice said.

President Obama has said he plans to overturn the Bush administration's policy, which prohibits federal funding for stem cell research that results in the destruction of human embryos. The extraction of stem cells from an embryo in such research destroys the days-old human being.

The anticipated order from Obama would permit experimentation using human embryos now in storage. The U.S. has an estimated 400,000 frozen embryos, but only 2.8 percent are available for research, according to a 2003 report by RAND Corp., a research group dedicated to providing experimental data and analysis.

A Jan. 23 news story that Geron Corp. had become the first organization to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct human clinical trials using embryonic stem cells actually shows federal funding for new human embryonic stem cell lines is unnecessary, Prentice said. Geron's research will be done with embryonic stem cell lines already in existence when President Bush announced his policy in August 2001. Therefore, they were approved under the Bush guidelines.

The Geron clinical trials will focus on patients with severe spinal cord injuries. Prentice emphasized that the trials are experiments, not the application of cures. A trial may not necessarily show improvements. "It shows safety. In other words, it did not damage the patient instead of actually causing an improvement," he said.

Embryonic stem cells have yet to provide treatments for any diseases in human beings.

Prentice defined a stem cell as an "unspecialized cell with the capacity to self-renew and to transform into other mature cell types." The basic fact that all stem cells have two main characteristics — ability to continually grow and divide and the ability to specialize into any various specialized tissue — has been central in scientists' research, he said.

But scientists have struggled to control embryonic stem cells in the lab and the research has been plagued with tumors. In mid-February the Associated Press reported that an Israeli boy suffering from a brain disease had been injected with fetal stem cells that triggered tumors.

Non-embryonic stem cell research, also known as adult stem cell research, is a better alternative, Prentice said. Non-embryonic stem cells can be found in many sources, including umbilical cord blood, placentas and fat. Taking stem cells from these non-embryonic resources causes no harm to the donor, and experiments with such cells have provided treatments for at least 73 ailments, according to Do No Harm, which works to promote ethical research.

Adult stem cells already have produced improvements in people with spinal cord injuries.

"We have seen lots of patients improve with adult stem cells," Prentice said at the Feb. 12 lecture.

Some patients are still alive because of their own adult stem cells, he said.

"The key point is that these adult stem cells work to improve patient health," Prentice said. "It is the adult stem cells that really show promise as a source of treatments."

Adult stem cells are the best option, Prentice said, not only because they do no harm but because they:

• Are seen as the most promising source for treatments;

• Can sufficiently replicate and provide for clinical treatments;

• Have shown proven success in laboratory, diseased animal models and clinical treatments;

• Are able to target damage;

• Avoid problems of tissue destruction in relation to transplant rejection, tumor formation and ethical uncertainty.


A video of Prentice's lecture may be viewed at www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=PL09B01. Other adult stem cell research information is available at www.stemcellresearch.org.