American Elephants

The furore over stem cells represents bad science, bad ethics, and bad politics. by The Elephant's Child

President Obama has yesterday released an Executive Order “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells.”This was a blatantly political decision, as the misleading headline makes clear.

There is probably no issue around which swirls so much hype, falsehood, false hope, pure emotion, politics and misunderstanding.  The liberal theme seems to be that the evil President Bush, because of his fundamentalist crackpot religion, has banned stem cell research from embryos which would let paralyzed people walk and cure most of society’s major diseases.  Others point to three decades of outstanding success with adult stem cell research, and wonder why investing taxpayer money in experimentation that has never had even one success is a good idea.

President Bush did not ban embryonic stem cell research, much as liberals like to claim that he did.  He limited federal funding to existing lines of embryonic cells.  This seemed a reasonable solution since the problems of embryonic stem cells did not offer much hope.  Unfortunately, the propaganda mills went to work.  Venture capitalists have refused to back embryonic stem cell research, which explains the need for government support.   Embryonic stem cell experimentation  has not only never produced a success, but it has a tendency to produce terrible teratoma tumors and cancers, as well as plain rejection.

It is hard to find unbiased information.  There are patents involved in embryonic stem cell research  that will enrich the patent holders if such research is allowed and is promising. University science departments are eager for funding.  Some states have hopes of  major medical centers as an important source of income, and they are anxious to encourage or invest in stem cell research.

People with paralysis or with degenerative diseases desperately want a cure, or improvement or real hope.  It is a very emotional issue.

Adult stem cell research has been going on for over three decades, and has shown many encouraging results: conditions improved, feelings returned to the paralyzed, cures, all kinds of successes.  Adult stem cells can come from bone marrow, skin, nasal tissue, fat tissue and other body parts. They are multipotent, used to regenerate many, but not all tissues in the body.

In 2007 scientists were able to tease adult skin cells into becoming pluripotent. These are called induced pluripotent cells and are not yet safe for treatment, because the process of making them includes the addition of cancer-causing agents. But just last week Canadian and Scottish researchers announced a new and safer way to create iPS cells.  In general, adult stem cells cancel the other big problem, rejection of donor cells, because they come from the patient’s own body and are safe. Venture capital firms are supporting this research with their own money.

Embryonic stem cell research has had many problems.  Because the cells come from a donor, rejection is a problem, as is the tendency to cause cancer and multiple tumors. It is not known if these problems can be overcome

Polls show that a majority of Americans believe it’s more important to conduct stem cell research that might lead to new cures than to avoid destroying human embryos.  I object.  This is not a subject that should be determined by polls of people who have no idea of what science has to say about the subject.  I firmly believe that we are doing way too much polling, too casually, and representing the results of polls as somehow authoritative, when they are not.  Political parties are anxious to grasp on to any issue that might give them an advantage, and democrats are anxious to capitalize on this one.

I found the following articles helpful, here, here, here and here There are several good articles at  For some reason I was unable to link to them.  Obviously some believe that  Embryonic stem cells will yield miracles.  Others believe that to be false hope and think  progress with adult cells  indicates the correct path.

I do not pretend to be an expert nor even particularly well-informed.  But I find the vast amount of information online to be biased, poorly researched and emotion-charged. Google ‘stem cells’ and see the hype in the headlines.

Only days after Obama’s inauguration the FDA approved its first-ever embryonic stem cell study in humans.  The biotech company Geron plans to inject highly purified human embryonic cells into eight to ten patients with acute spinal cord injuries.  The cells are from a Bush approved line.  I wish them well. It is an enormously risky undertaking.

And I surely wish we could get the politics out of it.

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Awesome article. You are exactly right about the use of adult stem cells and the cost (and potential cost) of using embyonic stem cells. You have a great site here. I commented on one of your other posts as well. I hope that is not a problem. Keep up the good work.


Comment by docdeer

We welcome comments. Helps to keep us honest! My hobbyhorse is noting that liberals are concerned with their good intentions. They are uninterested in consequences or in the studies and careful analysis that studies require. Because their good intentions offer the hope of the paralyzed walking again, and the possibility of curing debilitating disease, they are willing to overlook the scientific questions.

There are, of course, some very serious ethical questions, and we are nowhere near dealing honestly with these. But we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

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