Thursday, September 08, 2005

Embryonic versus adult: News reports get it half right: Lord Winston says that embryonic stem cell research has been overhyped to persuade politicians, but no mention of successes using umbilical cord and adult stem cells

At last! Some sense in the stem cell debate! For years, groups like CORE have been pointing out that not only are embryonic stem cells unethical because they involve the destruction of human embryos, but they are also unnecessary because it is possible to use stem cells from umbilical cord blood (which is otherwise thrown away after birth) or adult stem cells taken from blood, bone marrow, fat, skin, hair follicles, dental pulp etc, etc. Moreover, so far embryonic stem cells have not been used in any treatment whereas adult stem cells have been used in a variety of treatments. Embryonic stem cells also face problems including being rejected by the patient's immune system as foreign tissue and causing cancerous tumours to form. Finally, today there was a breakthrough. In a speech to the British Association Festival of Science in Dublin, the Guardian reports, IVF specialist, [Lord] "Winston singled out claims surrounding research into embryonic stem cells as being particularly overblown."

And in The Times "I was concerned that parliamentarians - particularly in the House of Commons - have been convinced that it was just a matter of a few years before we would be able to transplant stem cells and cure a lot of neurological disorders, like Alzheimer's disease, for which I think it is going to be a hugely difficult problem and probably completely insoluble by stem cells."

Stephen Minger, an embryonic stem cell researcher at Kings also admits in the same Times article "It is true that Alzheimer’s is not a promising candidate for stem-cell therapies, but it was not scientists who suggested it was — that was all politics in the US driven by Nancy Reagan."

This is all very interesting, because I don't recall either the Royal Society or other embryonic stem cell researchers in the UK, like Stephen Minger, ever pointing out that Alzheimers is not likely to be cured using stem cells before. Recently I wrote to BBC Newsonline to point this out:

I also notice that the report quotes the Alzheimer's society - however the comment that embryonic stem cells are going to be useful in Alzheimer's is contradicted by stem-cell researcher Michael Shelanski, co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain at Columbia University Medical Center, the "chance of doing repairs to Alzheimer's brains by putting in stem cells is small." U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Florida), a practicing physician, agrees: "Whether embryonic or adult stem cells, Alzheimer's disease is one of the least likely where stem cells could be useful." When asked why ESC proponents claim it could treat Alzheimer's, one ESC researcher said, "People need a fairy tale."
ESC-based cure for Alzheimer's a "fairy tale"

The fact is that anyone following the stem cell debate has known for some time that embryonic stem cells can cause cancerous tumours to form, see: Scientific problems with embryonic stem cells (note the date, as long ago as 2001)

Good as it is to see the whole range of media reporting accurately about the problems with embryonic stem cells, it is disappointing that the articles do not mention adult stem cells, not even once, and the headlines "stem cells overhyped" give the impression that all of "stem cell research" is overhyped, whereas in fact, adult stem cell research has been too much ignored and left out entirely for example out of the "stem cell milesstones" that are sometimes listed on articles.

It is not that there is a shortage of articles about adult or umbilical cord blood success stories. They do appear occasionally in the media, whether in relation to blindness being treated using adult stem cells, or a paralysed woman who was treated, or clinical trials for heart disease in London using bone marrow stem cells. It is just that when embryonic stem cells are being reported, adult stem cells seem to have been forgotten entirely. Given that the public said in a recent YouGov poll that they didn't know enough about stem cell research, maybe it is time for a lot more coverage of the successes of adult stem cells featured on these websties stem cell research and Comment on Reproductive Ethics


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just looked at the websites you list ( and ) and they are very interesting.

If as Lord Winston says parliamentarians were given an inaccurate impression of the science of embryonic stem cell research when these issues were debated in 2000, is it not the case that these issues should be reexamined by parliament?

They may come to a different conclusion about allowing human cloning of embryos for research and vast destruction of embryos for stem cells, if they were to look at the science again?

1:29 AM  
Anonymous marie said...

it's quite interesting to see how much evidence there is in favour of using adult stem cells.

Why do the media so often portray people who are opposed to embryonic stem cell research as against medical research?

It's clear that you can be both pro-adult stem cell research and against the use of embryos.

4:44 AM  
Anonymous Rosie said...

Interesting article, thanks for passing it onto me. I have a particular personal interest in diabetes.

I remember reading an article reviewing stem cell research in the British Medical Journal just 2 weeks after parliament passed laws to allow therapeutic cloning and allow embryos to be created to obtain stem cells.

Parliament was told that Diabetes UK backed embryo research and cloning. But the BMJ review of adult versus embryonic stem cells stated that ADULT stem cells were the preferable route for research into diabetes.

When I contacted Diabetes UK, 2 weeks after they were cited by the junior health minister as supporting cloning and embryo research, Diabetes UK said they had NO POLICY on embryo research.

So why were MPs led to believe that Diabetes UK backed embryo research, when they had no policy, and in terms of diabetes, adult stem cells are preferable??

I'd like to see much more analysis of the science - specifically by medical condition. This did not happen in 2000 when Parliament passed embryo research laws in a massive rush before Christmas. It should happen now in the new parliament, with the benefit of 5 years more knowledge and advances in adult stem cell research.

5:44 AM  
Blogger David said...

I work in bioethics research and I oppose the use of embryos in research, quite apart from any benefits that might be derived.

I just want to log here the frazzled state of my nerves, brought on by the pounding dealt out to anyone opposing this kind of research. Every online news story has venomous comments dripping off its end decrying "religious biggots" who "force their views" on society and so on and so on...

I just wish - and this is not bioethics - that people could be respectful of those they disagree with. It would really make life better for people genuinely trying to get to the bottom of these questions.

Being called names by strangers who dont understand my views is really the last thing i need. Im facing up to the brand new responsibilities of father hood, and a few other stressful things, and I dont need that stress!

Im sorry if anyone thinks this comment is beside the point, but its just not. People need to be respectful to each other or life will be miserable for all of us, whether youre a pro-life campaigner of an embryonic stem cell researcher.

Love and peace to you all

7:33 AM  

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