False/misleading Reuters headline on stem cell research

FDA allows first test of human stem cell therapy

So declares the headline to this Reuters article. Health writer Maggie Fox is either intentionally misstating the facts, ignorant of the truth, or deliberately moving the goal posts when it come to human stem cell clinical trials.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cleared the way for the first trial to see if human embryonic stem cells can treat people safely

The key word left out of the headline is “embryonic”. There are 1,300+ human clinical trials currently underway using adult stem cells – in addition to the hundreds of adult stem cell treatments already in use. The FDA approving a human clinical trial for an ESC treatment is big enough news in itself there’s no reason to file the story using such a misleading headline.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells, giving rise to all the tissues, organs and blood. Embryonic stem cells are considered the most powerful kinds of stem cells, as they have the potential to give rise to any type of tissue.

Researchers are also trying to find ways to use so-called adult stem cells, taken from bone marrow and elsewhere in the body, and have learned how to transform ordinary skin cells into stem-like cells. But scientists argue that no one knows which route will work so all avenues must be pursued.Again a bit of a misnomer as ESC aren’t necessarily the most powerful, they are merely the easiest to coax into differentiating. The author mentions in an off-hand, passing manner that scientists have also differentiated ASC into cells from all three germ layers. While there still remains much research to be done towards creating ASC that can reliably replicate themselves, it is hardly a passing accomplishment when one takes into account the ethical concerns and physiological issues associated with ESC treatments.

The Phase I trial will be designed to show that patients do not develop tumors, or damage to their nervous systems. But Okarma believes it will also indicate whether the stem cells might repair the damaged spinal cords.

The most serious impediment to human ESC trials to date has been the tendency of ESCs to form tumors known as teratoma. The goal of this trial is to use ESC to repair spinal damage, but the initial phase is first and foremost focused on monitoring the potential negative outcomes. An ESC treatment that does not lead to teartoma formation would indeed be a tremendous step forward in stem cell research.

The political debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research has little to do with its likelihood of yielding successful therapies. Human ESC, obviously, must be taken from human embryos. As long as people still debate when human life begins there will not be a policy that satisfies everyone. Research policy under GWBush was a compromise that left no one particularly pleased – which is to say it was probably the most reasonable policy one could expect from a “pro-life” president.

It is also worth noting that foreign ESC research unbridled from the restrictions imposed by Bush haven’t had any human trial approved to date. So despite the gnashing of teeth about the US falling behind in the stem cell treatment derby, we – as usual – lead the world in medical breakthroughs.

The underlying issue is access to additional federal funds for research. Free of ethical concerns and with a growing portfolio of potential treatments undergoing human trials, adult stem cell research attracts the vast majority of private (i.e. investor) funding. Naturally, investors want to be reasonably sure they will recoup their investment through viable and marketable treatment regimens. Hence the continued outcry for more public funding of embryonic research.

This newly approved trial probably won’t create a groundswell of new private funding in ESC research companies, but a successful outcome could indeed go a long way towards easing investor concerns about the efficacy of ESC treatments.

Let’s face it, the first company that can develop a safe and effective treatment to repair spinal/nerve damage will have a proverbial license to print money. Ditto for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a host of other ailments.

When the subject of stem cell research is discussed, it is important to remember that there are exciting possibilities with both embryonic and adult stem cells. We should also keep in mind that despite 50+ years of research the first human trial using ESC is only now being approved. Viable therapies are still decades away. We shouldn’t put all the eggs in one basket and ignore or minimize discoveries made based on ideological reasons. But the ethical concerns are real and valid, so the goal should be finding an acceptable middle ground that allows research without squelching anyone’s beliefs.

Based on the headline, it isn’t difficult to discern where Reuters’ bias lies.

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