May 26, 2024

Champions of embryonic stem cells fight back in media

Theology published in leading journal Stem Cell

What chance have
ordinary mortals of finding out the status quo in stem cell research when
powerful personalities have the ear of the media and science journals? Currently
there are 3 stem cell candidates for cures, drug discovery and genetic research
– human embryonic stem cells (hESC), induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), and
adult stem cells. Only hESCs are entangled in ethical controversy because they
are obtained by dicing up human embryos. Some kinds of adult stem cells show
clinical promise, although none is available for the public. Each kind has its
champions, but more and more researchers are turning to iPS cells and adult
stem cells. Even though sulphurous debates were held over the ethics of using hESCs
and legislation was changed in many countries to allow scientists to use them,
their star seems to be fading.

This month, hESC
defenders have staged a bare-knuckle public relations fightback.

In the London
, Thomas Okarma, CEO of Geron, the only listed company doing research
in hESCs, told journalist Mark Henderson that iPS cells were vastly over-rated.

“iPS cells have been
talked up as therapy by people with no experience of developing therapies. There
is simply no business model for getting treatments based on your own cells into
your body. The degree of difficulty in getting regulatory approval is just too
great when you’re making new therapeutic cells from scratch every time.”

Okarma is a canny
operator. A Geron clinical trial with hESCs was given FDA approval within days
after President Obama’s inauguration and his repudiation of the Bush policy on
stem cells. It turns out that Geron
engineered the timing
of the approval to create a huge wave of publicity. Geron
needs good publicity, as none of its many announcements that human trials are
imminent have proved true.

In another public
relations coup, Newsweek’s Sharon
Begley interviewed Robert Lanza
, a leading figure in hESC research. He
works for Advanced Cell Technology, a company which claimed to have cloned a
human being in 2001. He also rubbished the potential of iPS cells. His
experience has been that iPS cells age early and are vastly inferior to hESCs.
“This whole population of cells is screwed up,” he said. Cures will be
impossible if iPS cells age prematurely, and they will also be useless for drug

Dr Lanza is an
interesting figure. His personal website describes him as “one of the leading
scientists in the world” and repeats Discovery magazine’s description of him as
“the Bill Gates of science”. He describes his latest book, Biocentrism,
as “a simple yet radical idea shakes the very foundations of knowledge”, that “consciousness creates reality”. In an article
written with the New Age guru Deepak Chopra, he says that biocentrism makes
Darwinism outdated. Yet the media never asks him about his drift into New Age

Finally, the head of the California
Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Alan Trounson, one of the world’s leading
cheerleaders for hESCs, and 2 colleagues have interviewed Stephen Bellamy, an
Anglican priest in the
latest issue of the journal Stem Cells
. Rev Bellamy is a strong defender of
hESC research and pre-natal genetic diagnosis. The main point of the interview
is to give an overtly Christian theological justification for research on human
embryos. It must be the first time that stem cell theology has featured in a
science journal:

“As an evangelical
Christian, I hold a high view of the authority of scripture. The Bible teaches
about the value, in God’s eyes, of prenatal life developing in the womb but
does not and cannot directly address the situation of our having the remarkable
power and responsibility of dealing with preimplantation, or in vitro embryos.”

Ultimately, which type
of stem cells will be useful will be thrashed out in laboratories, not in the
media. But regulation and government funding probably depend more on the media.
This month the supporters of hESC research have showed that they are far from a spent
force. They kicked goals.

Michael Cook
adult stem cells
embryonic stem cells
iPS cells
public relations