Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Short on Results, Long on Hype
by Lee Duigon
Those who have seen loved ones die of horrible diseases have seen the worst a fallen world has to offer. We don’t want to see more. But is embryonic stem cell research the answer?
Dr. Prentice, founding member of Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics (www.stemcellresearch.org), explained why embryonic stem cell research has produced very little in the way of positive results.
Stem cells, like any other cells, are extremely complicated biological machines, he said. Scientists are a long way from fully understanding the genetic operations of a cell and nowhere near being able to control and manipulate a cell’s growth as desired.
When actually applied in treatment attempts, stem cells from embryos often develop into tumors and start cancerous growth. There is also the problem of rejection: the body is unable to use tissue taken from another body.
It’s very hard, Dr. Prentice said, to obtain pure cultures of any given tissue type. “It’s as if you had a machine with 30,000 on-off switches. To make it work, you have to turn off all 30,000 switches. Well, you always miss a few, and the process doesn’t work.”
Why does it go wrong?
“Our best guess is that when you take the stem cells out of the normal environment of the embryo — where there are all kinds of biochemical signals being exchanged — and put them in a lab dish, you no longer have the normal signals around, and the cells tend to take off on their own. We can’t control it,” Dr. Prentice said.
“They don’ tell you about all the failures in embryonic stem cell work, even in the animal studies,” Dr. Prentice said. “Animal ESCR (embryonic stem cell research) has been allowed since 1981 and is still being done.
“We’ve seen a rush right past animal research, trying to go directly to human ESCR. But we have yet to see any real evidence that these embryonic stem cells will treat a patient. Meanwhile, the scientists who push for this are deliberately playing down adult stem cell research.”
Adult Stem Cells
To take stem cells from an embryo, Dr. Prentice said, you have to destroy the embryo.
“All of us started out as embryos,” he said. “One week after conception, you look like a hollow ball with all your cells inside. To get the stem cells out, you have to break the embryo.”
But adults also have stem cells, which have the capacity to grow into assorted kinds of tissue. “Even babies have them,” Dr. Prentice said. “They’re in our bodies from birth.
“In certain diseases, part of an organ dies. We can use adult stem cells to regenerate and repair the damaged organ. Because the adult stem cells come from your own body, you don’t have to worry about rejection. We can obtain adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood, bone marrow — even liposuctioned fat has been used to grow bone and cartilage.
“Just in the published scientific papers alone, there are some 200 patients worldwide, with heart disease, who have been helped by their own adult stem cells. We’ve seen successful adult stem cell treatment for Parkinson’s disease and paraplegia, and we’re working on human trials for diabetes. Adult stem cell research has already paid off.”
Scientists in South Korea recently announced the successful cloning of human embryos — which were then destroyed to “harvest” the stem cells.
“Theoretically, had these cloned embryos been implanted into a womb, they would have developed into human babies,” Dr. Prentice said. “But the problems with cloning are just as bad as the problems with embryonic stem cells.”
Cloning produces defective results. The most famous cloning experiment, “Dolly the sheep,” was not the triumph that her creators claimed in popular news stories.
“The average life span of a sheep is 12 years,” Dr. Prentice said. “Dolly had to be euthanized at six. She had a lot of problems — including lungs that never functioned properly and premature aging.
“To make a clone, you implant genetic material into an egg. You have to remove the egg’s own genetic material, and we don’t have the tools to do that 100%. So those cloned human embryos would be getting ‘mixed messages,’ and they wouldn’t develop into normal human beings. Dolly was a sheep, of course. But she wasn’t a normal, healthy sheep.”
The Hype Goes On
If embryonic stem cell research so far has yielded no practical benefit, with even less achieved by experiments in cloning, why do scientists, the media, and certain politicians promote it so energetically?
“There are a lot of reasons for that,” Dr. Prentice said. “For one thing, you have people who have a completely different worldview from ours — like Peter Singer [Princeton ethicist, proponent of animal rights and human euthanasia], who says, ‘Don’t name your children until you’ve decided to keep them.’ You’re not a human being until they say you are.
“People ignore the questionable ethics of these techniques because they’ve bought into the false promises of cures. I remember Senator Specter a few years ago calling embryonic stem cell research ‘the fountain of youth.’
“Some have economic motives. They’re afraid to fall behind in biotech investment; they want grant money — and they want to create a line of embryonic stem cells and patent it. You can’t patent adult stem cells that come from the patient’s own body.
“You have scientists who are fascinated by this research. To them it’s just ‘science.’ They’re not interested in outcomes for patients. They have to sell it in terms of cures, but that’s not the goal.
“And you’ve got people in the media who are not scientifically literate. They simply take the comments of a few scientists who advocate this research and mindlessly repeat them.”
At the turn of the 16th century, a Transylvanian noblewoman, Elizabeth Bathory, murdered at least 600 young girls, believing that she would preserve her health and beauty by bathing in their blood — and drinking it.
“Now, instead of young girls, we simply move the age clock back to a few days after conception,” Dr. Prentice said. “It’s a form of cannibalism against the youngest and most vulnerable members of the human race.
“Some scientists just don’t want to be told what to do by non-scientists, or by anyone. But when science is divorced from the ethical question, you set the stage for the kind of nightmare exemplified by the Nazis’ ‘medical experiments’ in World War II.”
Men as merchandise, babies as booty … Is it such a big step, from a desperate search for a cure to merely making money? Baby parts are already big business. From medical emergency, we slide down the slippery slope to beauty treatments.