The stem cell debate

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on December 18, 2006

The San Diego Union-Tribune is running a three-part series on embryonic stem cell research. The first installment ran in Sunday's paper.

Disclaimer: I have had zero/zilch/nada to do with the writing, editing or even the page design of this series. The following comments and observations are my own and should not be construed to offer any insight into the stories that are not available to any other newspaper reader.

Having said that, the article focuses mainly on the business impact of current federal government policy prohibiting the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

The article is informative, but there's a couple of problems with it.

First, the article assumes a basic level of familiarity with the issue of stem cell research that many people may not have. It never bothers to explain the differences between embryonic stem cell research and adult or umbilical cord stem cells.

Second, the article repeatedly refers to stem cell funding by this group or that group, this government or that government, but it doesn't always specify whether it is just embryonic stem funding or all the types of stem cell funding.

Singapore, with just 4 million citizens, is investing $25 million to $29 million annually in research, excluding overhead costs and infrastructure.

That investment may seem wimpy compared with the $609 million the United States government spent on stem cell research last year. But because of federal funding restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research, only $20 million to $40 million a year – about 6 percent at best – has been directed to that field.

So, is the United States spending more on embryonic stem cell research than Singapore or less? Is that all of Singapore's spending on embryonic stem cell research, or is adult and umbilical cord stem cells inculded in that $25 million to $29 million number? The answer isn't clear.

There's another big part of this issue that I've yet to see any newspaper cover -- and it doesn't appear to be a major part of this series, the only hint of it you get is here:

Chinese physician-scientists with access to hundreds of patients are testing experimental therapies directly on humans. In the United States, only Geron has reported approaching readiness for clinical trials of a human embryonic stem cell treatment.

Suffice it to say that Chinese medical authorities are probably not exactly sticklers for safety when it comes to running clinical trials as compared to the Food and Drug Administration.

It's the second sentence which is relatively shocking and should be setting off the proverbial alarm bells about this issue for journalists to check out. One company, one, is "approaching readiness" for clinical trials on an embryonic stem cell based therapy -- after how many millions of dollars have been spent?

Journalists usually like to dig into government spending and finding out if the taxpayer is getting their money's worth. You remember all the stories about the $28,000 toilet seats and the $10,000 wrenches.

What are taxpayers really getting for their money -- even with restrictions -- on embryonic stem cell research?

Private investors are generally more wary than the government when it comes to spending (after all, they're spending their own money, the government is spending your money). How about a breakdown of where private research dollars are going?

Frankly, the media would be doing us all a favor if they would either refute or confirm much of the critical reporting on this issue coming from the likes of Michael Fumento who has characterized they hype surrounding embryonic stem cell research a "scam."

Try this for a thought experiment on the issue: Compare media coverage of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system's efficacy vis a vis test results to media coverage of potential embryonic stem cell therapies vis a vis real-world results.

It would be nice if the old media could just set aside their collective disdain for the "religious nutters" who think that these embryos are human life that have intrinsic worth greater than that of a lab rat and simply report on whether or not scientists are actually producing anything worthwhile with these embryonic stem cells.

That reporting in and of itself won't put to rest the existing ethical debate, but it will at the very least put the ridiculous claims of the likes of 2004 Democrat vice presidential nominee John Edwards (that actor Christopher Reeve would be able to get up and walk again if only we would fund more stem cell research) in the proper context.

I'll not hold my breath waiting for any of this to occur.


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December 2006



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