Let the Age of Enlightenment begin!
American scientists are apparently celebrating the end of George Bush’s “anti-science” presidency and looking to the newly-anointed President Barack Obama to “restore science to its rightful place,” as promised in his inaugural speech. It is also expected he will keep his campaign promise to reverse Bush’s 2001 directive restricting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. According to selective comments in the media, this singular act is responsible for keeping the U. S. in the Dark Ages and a technological step behind the rest of the world.
President Obama hasn’t reversed the directive yet, but the first embryonic stem cell miracle has already been credited to his enlightened administration!
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration just approved a clinical trial for an ESC treatment for spinal cord injuries, thereby making the U. S. the first in the world to conduct a human ESC clinical trial. The stem cells will be injected into 10 patients who have just experienced spinal cord injuries, but the big hope isn’t for a cure. The goal is to determine the treatment’s safety and record adverse reactions like tumours (since ESCs have a tendency to grow uncontrollably).
But things aren’t always what they seem. The timing of the announcement was purely coincidental and the trial had been under consideration for months. That means this world-first ESC research was conducted under Bush’s policies, hardly “the Dark Ages.”
ESCs are highly sought after because they have the potential to develop into almost any cell found in the human body. But they’re also controversial because they are obtained from human embryos that—here’s the catch—are destroyed during the extraction. As a result of hot debate on the issue, Bush finally compromised and said his government would not fund the creation of new cell lines, but it would fund research using the embryonic stem cell lines that were already in existence.
So forget the notion that Bush banned ESC research or withheld federal funding. Many scientists felt it was a balanced approach to the issue. Private investors and private companies were still free to conduct research on embryonic cells. Pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline funded ESC research and, following a referendum in 2004, the state of California also funnelled $3 billion into this research.
But many private companies have been reluctant to fund embryo research because it involves morally controversial techniques and, so far, has shown few signs of success. Most preliminary research indicates that adult stem cells are the key to new cures and treatments, so they’re jumping on that bandwagon. This is the real reason government funding is so essential to ESC research—few private investors view it as a future success.
In theory, embryonic cells can be used to stimulate the growth and repair of damaged cells in the heart, brain and spinal cord. They can even be coaxed to grow human organs like a pancreas to cure diabetes. But the practical application of this theory has been less than spectacular and any cures are in the distant future.
For example, the New England Journal of Medicine (2001) reported on a transplant of fetal tissue (containing ESCs) into patients with Parkinson’s disease. The transplanted cells not only failed to help the patients, they exacerbated the disease and caused irreversible side effects such as uncontrollable writhing, gnashing and jerking. One of the researchers said the results were “tragic, catastrophic. No more fetal transplants.”
In contrast, adult stem cells from bone marrow and stem cells obtained from umbilical cord blood are already curing diseases. While scientists are heralding the success of their FDA approval for the world’s first clinical trial using ESCs, more than 1,000 clinical trials are underway or have been completed using ASCs. Dozens of cures have been seen in trials and the FDA has already approved ASC treatments for nine different conditions. Other ASC treatments have been approved for use in other countries, but are still in the process of gaining FDA approval.
Duke University is using umbilical cord blood to treat children with brain injuries and cerebral palsy. The Texas Heart Institute is treating patients with heart disease by injecting their own ASCs directly into the heart to stimulate healing and blood flow. Most recently, a woman’s bone marrow cells were used to grow the new windpipe she so badly needed.
The first step to enlightenment isn’t Barack Obama. It’s acknowledging the only thing holding back embryonic stem cell research is that it might not work.
Editor’s note: For further reading in the PTBC blog: “Media continues its lies re stem cell research; deceivingly invoking “Obama” as a savior of science”—by Joel Johannesen (01/23/2009)