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A Stem Cell Tale

Why one type of stem-cell research gets fawning media coverage and another is all but ignored.

11:00 PM, Dec 21, 2004 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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IT NEVER FAILS. If an embryonic stem cell researcher issues a press release touting a purported research advance, the media trip over each other to give the story full dramatic fanfare. But if an even better adult or umbilical cord blood stem cell advance comes to light--even when the experiments involve humans--you can usually hear the crickets chirping.

The latest examples of this phenomenon involve contrasting coverage about experimental embryonic and adult stem cell therapies to treat paralysis. Last week, a purported breakthrough in embryonic stem cell research for spinal cord injury shot across the media firmament like lightning through an Iowa summer sky. Embryonic stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead claimed to have transformed embryonic stem cells into a cell that "help the brain's signals traverse the spinal cord." He then injected these cells into paralyzed rodents and reported that they appear to have "repaired damaged rat spines several weeks after they were injured."

If this research pans out, it would indeed be an important breakthrough. But one wonders why this particular story was written at this specific time and received so much play, given that Keirstead didn't actually make any news. As noted in the story, Keirstead has been playing videos of formerly paralyzed rats walking to various audiences for two years. Moreover, the only apparent news hook for the current story is that he hopes to begin human trials using this technique in about two years.

This is cause for headlines? If human trials were actually beginning, that would be a story worth touting. But until then, it is more hype than fact. Indeed, it is worth noting that Keirstead has made similar statements before--and they didn't pan out. For example, in a March 18, 2002 story reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the researcher was quoted as planning to begin human trials with his technique "in about a year."

Now contrast this much-hyped, mostly non-news event with actual recent news involving adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells that received muted or no coverage in the mainstream media. For example, most readers probably don't know that paralyzed human patients are apparently being successfully treated with their own adult stem cells by Dr. Carlos Lima in Lisbon, Portugal. The experimental therapy uses a paralyzed patient's own olfactory (nasal) stem cells and nerves, which are extracted from the patients and then injected into their injured spinal cords. So far, more than 20 patients have received this therapy with most receiving measurable benefit.

On July 14, 2004, two of Dr. Lima's American spinal cord injury patients testified before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space. Their reports about their individual improvement after receiving Dr. Lima's experimental treatments were breathtaking. For example, Susan R. Fajt testified:

I have recovered some functional improvement through Dr. Lima's procedure, such as the ability to hold my bladder and at times even void on my own. Sensation has been restored, though it is not completely normal. When concentrating, I am now able to contract my thighs slightly . . . this was impossible before my surgery in Portugal. But most important on my way to recover is that I can now walk with the aid of braces. I am now preparing to shed the shell of this wheelchair . . . to more and more use my braces and walker for mobility. This is something my doctors in America told me would never be possible with my level of injury and to accept my fate. [emphasis added]

Similarly, 19 year-old Laura Dominguez, "paralyzed from the neck down" in an auto accident, testified at the same hearing about the improvements she received from Dr. Lima's adult stem cell procedure. Within 6 months of the surgery, she testified:

I had regained feeling down to my abdomen. Improvements in my sensory feelings have continued until the present time. I can now feel down to my hip level and have started to regain feeling and some movement in my legs. My upper body has gained some more strength and balance. Another one of the most evident improvements has been my ability to stand and remain standing, using a walker, and with minimal assistance. When I stand I can contract my quadriceps and hamstring muscles. I can also stand on my toes when I am on my feet. And more importantly, while lying down in a prone position, I am able to move my feet. [emphasis added]

A press conference was held to tout these hopeful stories, but it was as if nobody came. Where were the screaming headlines? Where was the Larry King Live interview? Where was the high-profile 60 Minutes report? They didn't happen.

PERHAPS THE DEARTH IN COVERAGE can be explained by the truth that much research and peer review remains before we can say that Dr. Lima has found an efficacious treatment for spinal cord injury. But if that is true about the remarkable and measurable improvements in Fajt, Dominguez, and about two score others, isn't it more so about Keirstead's rats?

This general propensity in the American media to downplay non embryonic stem cell successes was evident just this month in the scant coverage given to a similar potential breakthrough in the treatment of human paralysis, (a story generally well covered in Europe). South Korean researchers have apparently helped a woman who has been paralyzed for 20 years regain the ability to walk after being treated with umbilical cord blood stem cells. Indeed, the woman has progressed so well that she took a few steps unassisted in front of a bank of television cameras.

If either Dr. Lima's or the South Korean experiments eventually pan out, they would appear to be a better choice for treating spinal cord injury than embryonic stem cells. First, there is no moral controversy with either adult or cord blood stem cells. Thus, we could have medical cures without the accompanying heated political controversy. Second, unlike embryonic cells, neither adult nor umbilical cord blood stem cells have been found to cause tumors. Third, Dr. Lima's approach would not require immune suppressing drugs since the stem cells come from the patients' own bodies. This isn't necessarily true of umbilical cord blood stem cells. But their unique characteristics appear to make them less likely than embryonic stem cells to trigger an immune response. With tissue typing, it is possible that immune suppression would not even be necessary.

It is important to emphasize that a few patients' physical improvement--no matter how dramatic--do not new cures make. Much research remains to be done in adult and umbilical cord blood stem cell therapies before we can confidently predict ultimate success. But if less newsy stories involving embryonic stem cells are worthy of enthusiastic coverage, surely the more hopeful and advanced breakthroughs, albeit no sure things, warrant at least equivalent levels of media interest. Perhaps if the media stopped taking sides in the ongoing political debates over biotechnology, a more balanced picture would emerge.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book about the moral, scientific, and business aspects of biotechnology is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.