The Stem-Cell Debate Really Heats Up!
||Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Brad Harrub, Ph.D.
As we write this, the 2004 presidential election is just a little over a week away. Roughly five months ago, on Saturday, June 5, 2004, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan succumbed to Alzheimer’s, after a ten-year-long battle with the disease. On Sunday, October 10, 2004, quadraplegic actor Christopher Reeve died as a result of cardiac arrest. Both of these sad events have heightened the hype around stem-cell research in America.
On Tuesday, July 27, 2004, Ron Reagan, the Republican president’s youngest son and namesake, spoke at the Democratic National Convention and during his speech, advocated research using embryonic stem cells (something to which is father was vehemently opposed). Reagan Jr. “tugged at the heart strings” when he painted a picture that envisioned a Parkinson’s disease patient being cured as the result of stem-cell research. He discussed the potential of using a patient’s own skin cells—plus a donor egg—to produce neural cells that would be injected into the brain, called it a “personal biological repair kit,” and labeled it “the future of medicine,” telling those in attendance that stem-cell research could lead to “the greatest medical breakthrough in our or in any lifetime” (“Reagan Calls for…,” 2004).
Advance several months. On Monday, October 11, 2004, one day after Christopher Reeve died, U.S. senator John Edwards, the vice-presidential running mate of Democratic presidential hopeful, senator John Kerry, said in regard to Reeve’s untimely death: “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” (see “Frist Knocks Edwards…,” 2004).
It is statements like these—from people as prominent as Reagan and Edwards—that have resulted in what Newsweek magazine called (on the front cover of its October 25, 2004 issue) “The Battle Over Stem Cells.” And there is more. On election day, Tuesday, November 4, voters in California will go to the polls not just to cast their vote for a U.S. president, but also to determine whether or not they will approve a $3 billion bond issue being proposed by their new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to fund embryonic stem-cell research in California (Schwarzenegger himself is a strong supporter of embryonic stem-cell research; see “Schwarzenegger Backs Stem-cell Plan,” 2004; Kalb and Rosenberg, 2004, 144:47). Add to that the fact that in mid-October 2004, Harvard researchers applied for university permission to clone human embryos in order to study models of a variety of human diseases (see Kalb and Rosenberg, p. 44), and it is little wonder that the two authors of the October 25, 2004 Newsweek cover-story article titled their piece “Stem-Cell Division.”
“Division” indeed. There appears to be far too much hype, and not nearly enough good science, involved in this debate. That fact has not been lost on such people as Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist (a heart surgeon, and the only medical doctor in the Senate), who responded to John Edwards’ comments that “people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again” with appropriate ire when he said:
I find it opportunistic to use the death of someone like Christopher Reeve—I think it is shameful—in order to mislead the American people. We should be offering people hope, but neither physicians, scientists, public servants or trial lawyers like John Edwards should be offering hype. It is cruel to people who have disabilities and chronic diseases, and, on top of that, it’s dishonest. It’s giving false hope to people, and I can tell you as a physician who’s treated scores of thousands of patients that you don’t give them false hope (“First Knocks Edwards…,” 2004).
We couldn’t agree more. Such statements as those by senator Edwards are indeed “opportunistic,” and they do “offer false hope.” And so are statements like those of Ron Reagan Jr. As Kalb and Rosenberg admitted in their Newsweek article, “Not a single person has yet been cured by embryonic stem cells” (p. 46).
But there is more to it than that. The truth is: the studies performed thus far using embyronic stem cells on human subjects have done more harm than good! If people like Reagan, Edwards, Kerry, and Schwarzenegger are really interested in promoting human welfare, as they claim, and not just in promoting/sustaining/defending their personal pro-choice agendas, then why don’t they take a long, hard look at the scientific information? If you really want to cure people like Christopher Reeve, why not look at the scientific studies that have been peer reviewed and printed in reputable scientific journals? If you do, do you know what you will find? You will find something that most media outlets apparently do not want you to know, but something that many scientists have already admitted: adult stem cells work better than their embryonic counterparts! And, as those of us at Apologetics Press have repeatedly pointed out (http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2512), the destruction of human embryos for this type of research is a dangerous “slippery slope” that science dare not tread—even when there seems to be good reason to do so. Why? Because the wanton destruction of human life is wrong!
Furthermore, as we reported in the “In the News” section of our Web site for the week of July 26-August 1, 2004 (in an article titled “Stem Cells May not be the Ultimate Cure-All”), research at the Oregon Health and Science University defies the long-held assumption that stem cells are responsible for repairing diseased tissue. Holger Willenbring and colleagues found that macrophages (white blood cells that act as phagocytes to ingest foreign particles) “derived from bone marrow stem cells, and not bone marrow stem cells themselves, are what fused with diseased liver cells, ultimately curing a genetic liver disease” (as quoted in Science Daily, 2004, p. 1). In fact, Willenbring was not sure that stem cells did anything in the cells he and his coworkers evaluated. This landmark discovery was reported in the July issue of Nature Medicine (see Willenbring, et al., 2004).
But by all means, do not take our word for all of this. Instead, click on the following link (“Presidential Elections, Superman, Embryonic Stem Cells, Bad Science, and False Hope”), which will take you to an article that we have authored, examining this very point. Interestingly, the bulk of the article is nothing more than synopses from scientific journals, outlining the various stem-cell studies that have been carried out so far. We think you will be fascinated, and possibly shocked, by what you find.
“Frist Knocks Edwards Over Stem-cell Comment” (2004), CNN.com, [On-line], URL: http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/10/12/edwards.stem.cell/.
Kalb, Claudia and Deborah Rosenberg (2004), “Stem Cell Division,” Newsweek, 144:44, October 25.
“Reagan Calls for Increased Stem-cell Research” (2004), CNN, [On-line], URL: http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/07/27/dems.reagan/.
“Schwarzenegger Backs Stem-cell Plan” (2004), CNN.com, [On-line], URL: http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/10/19/Schwarzenegger.stem.ap/index.html.
Science Daily (2004), “Macrophages, not Stem Cells, Correct Liver Disease by Fusion,” [On-line], URL: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/07/040708014035.htm.
Willenbring, Holger, Alexis S. Bailey, Mark Foster, Yassmine Akkari, Craig Dorrell, Susan Olson, Milton Finegold, William H. Fleming, and Markus Grompe (2004), “Myelomonocytic Cells are Sufficient for Therapeutic Cell Fusion in Liver,” Nature Medicine, 10:744-748, July.