Friday, November 24, 2006

Stem Cell Research : Battle in Missouri Moves to Nebraska

The University of Nebraska Medical Center has unleashed a barrage of newspaper and radio advertising to promote Mini-Medical School on Nov. 28 featuring stem cell research. UNMC offers these events free to the public several times a year to provide information on an area of research in the news. The ads have been slanted in favor of embryonic stem cell research over adult.

I plowed back through my Omaha World-Heralds and noticed that studio-produced quarter-page ads have run in the Sunday Nov. 12 main section and the Wednesday Nov. 15 Midlands section -- highest readership days of the week. I wonder if I have missed any. Has there ever been such promotion of a mini med school night?

Maybe UNMC is not shy about using tax dollars for this advocacy. Maybe it uses funds from private sources. Even if the latter is the case, it's still using the taxpayer-funded bully pulpit that is the state med school to advocate embryo-destructive research.

In the only poll I know of that directly asked Nebraskans if they supported stem cell research that requires destruction of embryos, the majority response was no. (There was a wonderful OWH op-ed column about that poll, but I digress . . . )

Some pro-embryonic voices in this debate have changed the mantra, in the pages of the OWH and other places, from saving future Christopher Reeves and Ronald Reagans to the more modest goal of simply doing "basic research." That change in course is a response to the realization that embryonic stem cell research, even with cloning, may never be able to deliver on the hype about cures.

Yet the mini med school ad features a man with Parkinson's and a woman with diabetes holding a sign that says "Hope" and saying how excited they are that embryonic stem cell research might cure their diseases. Apparently the PR people prevailed over the scientific people in preparing the ad.

Note the fudging in the ad. In big letters it begins, "Stem Cells, the promise of 21st century research." No beef there. Then we see the "Hope" sign. OK, still no beef.

Then in smaller type we get the personal statements of the two people about embryonic stem cells possibly curing them. No mention of the progress against Parkinson's and diabetes with adult stem cells. (See Dennis Turner's testimony to Congress. It's just one case, but it's a Parkinson's patient experiencing relief through adult stem cell therapy.)

Then immediately after in larger boldface type we get: "Stem cells -- the body's built-in repair system. Potential cures for the most disparaging diseases may be found in these microscopic cells."

Wait a minute! ADULT stem cells that are the body's built-in repair system! Cloning has to be shoehorned into the campaign for embryonic stem cell research precisely because embryonic stem cells ARE NOT part of the body's built-in repair system.

Just as the Irving Weisman ad did a year ago at this time, the wording drifts back and forth between generic references to stem cells and specific references to embryonic stem cells. There's a reference to "adult and embryonic stem cell research" near the end of the ad, but only after safely blurring the distinction in the heart of the ad.

The token mention of adult stem cells comes right before the statement that "UNMC experts" will "separate fact from fiction." Cheeky devils.

1 comment:

Sandy Goodman said...

One point of clarification. The emphasis on basic research among embryonic stem cell research advocates is not to suggest that there is any less promise in embryonic stem cell research. It is to provide a more complete understanding to the general public as to the breadth of the impact that the research may have. This goes beyond the cell transplant therapies that are commonly focused upon, which are the main applications of adult stem cells.

In fact, the promise of embryonic stem cell research and the basic knowledge to be obtained from studying embryonic stem cells is likely to greatly accelerate many areas of medical research. It is a source of great hope for all of us that our future will be healthier for our children and grandchildren, if not for us alone.

The following discussion gives you a sense of what is involved in studying both adult and embryonic stem cells. (It also addresses a coomonly used argument against embryonic stem cells -- their tendency to create teratomas, or multi-cell type tumors.)


Catherine Verfaillie: Taking analogies from what we have learned from the mouse, mouse embryonic stem cells were identified about 30 years ago. Use of these cells and using these cells in the models that I've shown you where we inject these cells and make mixed mice has shown us which genes are important for development early in the brain, early in the liver, early in the heart. It has shown us how organs get formed in the organ and the structures that we have them, how complicated livers, how complicated kidneys are, and so a lot amount of information has been gained by having access to mouse embryonic stem cells and being able to do the studies that we have done in the mouse. One of the things I didn't tell you was about these funny little tumors. So this recreates sort of, not a mouse, but actually recreates part of organs of a mouse, or humans if you take human embryonic stem cells. So within these little tumors you can actually see little pieces of bowel, you can see little pieces of lung that aren't arranged right, but I think that use of human embryonic stem cells in these model systems will allow us to confirm what we know in mouse and extend it to what we don't know in the mouse, what is different between a mouse and a human. And if you're really to use what is embryonic stem cells or adult stem cells understanding very well what these early steps in development of each individual organ and each individual cell type within an organ, how this all comes about, is going to be extremely important for us to be able to use the power of stem cells and use these cells to treat whatever diseases we treat. Without these insights, it's a shot in the dark and you may end up with cells that have partial function but not the total function because somewhere along the way of these very carefully staged steps in development, we mess up a step and we skip one and so the cell that we ultimately create is not exactly the one that we would like to create. So in that respect, human embryonic stem cells are important. Could adult stem cells replace human embryonic stem cells? Well, adult stem cells for instance don't make these funny little tumors, so they have something missing in them that the embryonic stem cells have. We need more insights on how to create these organ structures and so really that is probably the area where we'll understand development of early steps in organ genesis, early steps in creating a liver, creating a heart that will be needed to actually ultimately be able to apply stem cell technology in the clinic.


The complete transcript of the University of Minnesota forum last April, from which the above is extracted, provides a number of insights relevant to this debate.