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Stem cell research: Progress and PR

By Alan Caruba
web posted July 4, 2005

A friend of mine, the president of a New York public relations firm, has a big stake in the success of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research because his wife, a childhood sweetheart and mother of his children, was diagnosed with Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis many years ago and requires constant care.

To encourage passage of proposed legislation that would increase federal funding for ESC, he has created a "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" campaign (Jericho Communications, 304 Hudson Street, Suite 700, New York, NY 10013) asking people to send the President a million pairs of old shoes to demonstrate public support for the bill that would provide more funding. After the message is presented to the White House, the shoes will be donated to charity. For more information, contact stemcell@jerichopr.com.

Stem cell research offers the promise of cures, but lost in the debate about federal funding is the fact that there are two forms, embryonic and adult.

What you rarely read or hear about is Adult Stem Cell research (ASC). The reason is two-fold. First, ESC has gotten better public relations, but the use of embryos also lies at the heart of a moral tug-of-war between primarily fundamentalist Christians and the scientists advocating more funding for research.

Secondly, ASC, which may prove to be more promising, gets almost no media coverage because, quite frankly, most reporters are either abysmally ignorant of the progress that has already been made or are biased toward ESC, thanks to the way its advocates have effectively promised to cure every disease or injury in sight, and the conflict that neatly divides those for and against it. Journalism thrives on conflict.

Frankly, I hope my friend's wife and all the others in need of a cure can find it, whether it comes from either ESC or ASC. I am personally less concerned about the ethics of using embryos if, in fact, they are going to be destroyed anyway.

What I do know is that my colleague, Michael Fumento, one of the leading science writers in the nation, reports that, "Adult stem cells routinely treat or cure more than 80 different diseases, while no ESC research is anywhere near becoming a human clinical trial."

ASC represents real progress, but you aren't reading about it because the political debate about ESC funding is drowning out this important fact. "Moreover," notes Fumento, adult stem cells "are obtained without the ethical conflicts of harvesting human embryos."

In short, the process of cloning using a human embryo, widely opposed by right-to-life advocates, is not a factor thanks to the advances already made with ASC research. ESC's only advantage is that they can become all cell types, but ASC's have the ability to convert into all three "germ layers" formed during early embryonic development. One involves connective tissues, muscles and the circulatory system. Another involves skin and nervous system cells, and the third involves the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, and endocrine glands. Thus, ASC's can address a whole host of diseases and injuries.

Should we abandon ESC research? No, but neither should we succumb to the hyperbole about their ability to cure all ills to the extent that we ignore ASC research. Right now, ESC's don't cure anything.

The political battle will focus on the moral and ethical issues, but politics is already influencing the number of research grants being administered by the National Institutes of Health. They tilt strongly to ESC research. From 2001 to the present there have been 750 ESC research grants, whereas ASC's have received only 140 such grants, with an additional 139 for research on umbilical-cord stem cells.

Politics, too, is clearly influencing President Bush's resistance. The role of Christian evangelicals was critical to his winning the last two elections. There is a touch of irony involved in the political debate occurring. As the legislation seeking more ESC funding continues to make it way through Congress, we can expect Nancy Reagan, the wife of the former president, to play a role supporting it.

What you are not likely to hear, however, is that there is not a huge surplus of embryos for such research. Writing in a June 5 edition of the Chicago Tribune, Steve Chapman reported that, "Just 2.2 percent of the embryos (currently available) have been designated for disposal and less than 3 percent for research. The latter group amounts to about 11,000." According to a RAND study, these would yield no more than 275 stem-cell lines.

For the task of curing major diseases, an article in Scientific American last year said, 'hundreds of thousands' of lines may be needed -- which 'could require millions of discarded embryos.'"

As these facts become more widely known, the ethics battles may recede. Adult stem cells would, at this point, appear to hold a far greater promise. Either way, what I and countless others want is to see research proceed and the promise of stem cell research to end the suffering of those afflicted diseases and injuries which are the cause so much grief today be fulfilled.

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba 2005


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