May 26, 2024

Mixed signals over future of stem cell research

Several prominent stem cell scientists in the UK have complained that the media is overselling their research, according to the London Telegraph. “Over the decades the mismatch between the daily agenda of the media and the glacial pace of research has set a familiar pattern, where the media turn tentative findings into headline news and, with equal glee, seize on the inevitable disappointments and failures that follow,” writes Roger Highfield. Magic bullets which have missed their target in the past include monoclonal antibodies and gene therapy, both once touted as revolutionary treatments and both failing to measure up to the media hype they had generated.

One of the cautionary voices is Lord Robert Winston, a fertility expert who made his reputation as the pioneer of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. He says, “Whilst I am certainly not against stem cell technology, and indeed believe it is a vital and exciting area, we need to be cautious about how to explain this to the public. I am not arguing that it should not be funded, it is just that we must not make exaggerated claims. In the long term they will come to haunt us.”

Lord Winston points to two limitations of embryonic stem cell therapies which have become more evident in recent months. First, there are practical difficulties involved in culturing cloned stem cells without creating genetic or chromosomal abnormalities. And second, there is still a risk that embryonic stem cells could turn cancerous — even a single rogue cell could cause a tumour. Other scientists have pointed out the dangers of transmitting diseases through stem cell lines and of epigenetic problems.

Opponents of destructive embryo research tout the potential of adult stem cells. But some stem cell scientists sneer that this has not been proven. Professor Austin Smith, of Edinburgh University, even says that such claims are “embarrassing”. However, Highfield concludes that while applications using embryonic stem cell are still distant, those using adult stem cells are not far away.