Friday, January 15, 2010

The Waterloo for Embryonic Stem Cell Research

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The battle over embryonic stem cell research is over. A few skirmishes will no doubt continue—perhaps even for years—and some ESCR advocates will refuse to acknowledge defeat. But they have decisively lost. Years from now, when we look back in astonishment at having been fleeced for billions to pay for therapeutically worthless research, we’ll recognize that California was the Waterloo for ESCR.

In 2004, California approved Proposition 71, a ballot measure that would allow the state to borrow $3 billion for ESCR. At best the measure would have been an epic boondoggle: pharmaceutical companies would have been able to profit off the taxpayer-funded research without the state sharing any of the profits or even obtaining any of the developed drugs at a cheaper cost. But because it was considered a “progressive” measure (ESCR has always been a stalking horse for abortion rights) it received the support from a long list of billionaires, Silicon Valley tycoons, Nobel laureates, and Hollywood celebrities. Convinced that the only thing standing between science and cures was time and money, the citizens of California opened the state’s coffers.

But five years later, the hype has died down and ESCR has provided no cures, no therapies, no progress, and no hope. Investor’s Business Daily notes,

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state agency created to, as some have put it, restore science to its rightful place, is diverting funds from ESCR to research that has produced actual therapies and treatments: adult stem cell research. It not only has treated real people with real results; it also does not come with the moral baggage ESCR does.

To us, this is a classic bait-and-switch, an attempt to snatch success from the jaws of failure and take credit for discoveries and advances achieved by research Prop. 71 supporters once cavalierly dismissed. We have noted how over the years that when funding was needed, the phrase “embryonic stem cells” was used. When actual progress was discussed, the word “embryonic” was dropped because ESCR never got out of the lab.

Advocates of ESCR preyed on the scientific and ethical illiteracy of the general public to support the massive funding of this speculative research. The complexity of the issue and the peculiar terminology used often prevented many citizens from developing a fully informed opinion on the matter. They relied on the “experts” and the ESCR supporters took full advantage of this trust by making claims that had no basis in reality. As Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said in 2004 about the claims that ESCR could lead to cures for Alzheimer’s, “To start with, people need a fairy tale. Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”

The truth about ESCR wasn’t unknown to researchers and scientists. The only legitimate practical (though it remained unethical) reason for pursuing ESCR has always been basic research. Researchers know, however, that you’ll never get a grant for millions of dollars because you find stem cells intriguing and want to spend your life studying them in a lab. So they stretched the truth by downplaying the fact that the barriers to therapeutic applications were all but insurmountable. They’ve always known, as MIT researcher James Sherley says, that, “Figuring out how to use human embryonic stem cells directly by transplantation into patients is tantamount to solving the cancer problem.”

Fortunately, the misinformation and false promises seem to be on the wane. Some politicians still continue to tout the benefits of ESCR, of course, because their ignorance is often as limitless as their willingness to talk about issues they know nothing about. (Digression: Several years ago I presented testimony on ESCR and cloning before the Illinois legislature. A Chicago Democrat told me I was wrong about ESCR because he knew that people had already been cured by injecting “embryos into a patient’s spinal cord.”) Scientists and researchers, however, appear to be less vocal than they were a few years ago. Perhaps the Climategate scandal has served as a warning that trust in science is destroyed when they are willing to deceive the public.

This doesn’t mean that they will be honest about their deception, of course. And we shouldn’t expect the “ESCR has proven to be a failure” theme to be carried by the media. Despite the fact that adult stem cell research has provided 73 treatments for everything from heart disease to brain cancer while ESCR has never produced any results at all, ESCR will still be considered a “promising approach.” Like climate change, stem cell research is often more about politics than science, so as long as gullible politicians are willing to hand over millions in funding, supporters won’t admit defeat.

Still, while the people of California may continue to throw their money away on the research, the real debate about the promise of ESCR is over. Whether they realize it or not, ESCR advocates have lost—and ethical research has won.


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