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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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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.