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Of Hype and Adult Stem Cell Research

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJanuary 20, 2006 3:27 AM


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The anti-research types get a lot of mileage out of arguing that embryonic stem cell research has been hyped. In general, I think they greatly overstate the case, but we must admit--and I certainly do--that some pro-research statements have been made that are really beyond the pale. Perhaps the most outrageous example, of course, is Jonathan Edwards' statement during the 2004 campaign that

If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.

Note to John: You just can't promise specific cures for specific diseases like that--especially not on a specific time line, and super especially not in exchange for votes. I would say that this is a clear political misuse of science. In fact, I say that repeatedly in my public speeches, and on the air.

But what's less frequently acknowledged is that there's plenty of hype on the other side of the aisle as well, particularly when it comes to various claimed breakthroughs in the adult stem cell research field. In my book The Republican War on Science, I quoted the famed UCSF researcher Elizabeth Blackburn on the subject of alleged adult stem cell "miracle" cures:

One person gets up and walks. That doesn't to me constitute a clinical study; that constitutes an anecdote. And I'm very happy for the person. But we keep hearing about them, and then they sort of disappear.

Those are wise, wise words--especially in light of recent revelations that one of the leading case studies of an adult stem cell "miracle" cure now turns out to be anything but. The American Journal of Bioethics blog has the rundown, based upon reporting out of Korea:

Hwang Mi-sun, 39, was once hailed as proof that miracle cures can happen. Paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury she suffered when she was 19, she met the press on Nov. 25, 2004, and took a few steps with the aid of a walker.

The press conference was called by a team of researchers at Chosun University's medical school, Seoul National University's veterinary college and Seoul Cord Bank, a biotechnology company, who had treated Ms. Hwang with injections of adult stem cells.

Just over a year later, Ms. Hwang says her miracle has turned into a nightmare. She can no longer even sit in a wheelchair and now spends most of her time in bed and says she is in constant pain. Her story, and others like it, suggests that there was a headlong rush by the government and medical researchers to get a step ahead of the rest of the world in stem cell therapy and that corners were cut, including by the government's medical oversight body. Art Caplan and Wesley Smith are fighting it out over in the comments section of the AJOB blog over this latest news. I've criticized Smith enough lately, so I won't weigh in, except to say that we all really ought to remember the words of Elizabeth Blackburn, and be very careful about how much we gush about experimental adult stem cell therapies--especially with the goal of attacking or undermining embryonic stem cell research.

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