November 15, 2006

Stem-Cell Two-Step - UPDATED November 16th

Hatched by Dafydd

UPDATE November 16th, 2006, 00:23: see below.

Here's another example of the truculence of the drive-by media as it relates to scientific truths they just don't want to hear...

Here's the headline:

Stem Cells Help Dogs With Dystrophy

Wow, maybe there's hope for all those MD sufferers. How can those wicked right-to-lifers stand in the way of cures for so many? The article continues:

In promising new research, stem cells worked remarkably well at easing symptoms of muscular dystrophy in dogs, an experiment that experts call a significant step toward treating people.

"It's a great breakthrough for all of us working on stem cells for muscular dystrophy," said researcher Johnny Huard of the University of Pittsburgh, who wasn't involved in the work.

Sharon Hesterlee, vice president of translational research at the Muscular Dystrophy Association, called the result one of the most exciting she's seen in her eight years with the organization. Her group helped pay for the work.

She stressed that it's not yet clear whether such a treatment would work in people, but said she had "cautious optimism" about it.

Two dogs that were severely disabled by the disease were able to walk faster and even jump after the treatments.

At this point, a certain suspicion starts to creep through my brain. This is odd; why do they keep saying "stem cells," without any attached adjective?

Finally, six paragraphs into the story, they drop the other shoe -- the one alert readers must already have figured out for themselves:

The study was published online Wednesday by the journal Nature. It used stem cells taken from the affected dogs or other dogs, rather than from embryos. For human use, the idea of using such "adult" stem cells from humans would avoid the controversial method of destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells.

No kidding!

Of course, the headline should have read: Adult Stem Cells Help Dogs With Dystrophy; that would have been the more accurate (and more responsible) head. But that's not what AP wanted to hear... so the magic word just softly and suddenly vanished away from the headline and the first few uses in the body. And after clearly identifying the particular stem cells as adult stem cells in one paragraph, the remaining paragraphs simply refer to "stem cells" again (unqualified), as if political amnesia has already set in.

Now, please don't misunderstand: I'm all in favor of stem-cell research, including embryonic stem-cell research. Now that we have a method (which needs more work, of course) to extract embryonic stem stem cells without destroying the embryo, it should be a no-brainer; but even when we had to kill an embryo to get the stem cell, I personally supported it. (I do not believe human personhood begins as conception.)

But I'm equally in favor of research into the use of adult stem cells and placental stem cells... and I don't have to lie -- even by omission -- about the tremendous strides we've already made in those two areas, just to puff up the flimsy resume of embryonic stem cells.

(Mind, it's the "flimsy" resume of a 22 year old who just graduated magna cum laude from Cal Tech or MIT, but hasn't had his first job yet. It's not nothing; it's just not yet proven in the real world.)

I hate dissembling, and this article dissembles like a politician caught with his hand in the nookie jar. Come on, AP; give credit where it's due.

UPDATE: Commenter David has a post on his own blog about another tremendously exciting cure that could possibly come from adult stem cells: injecting a coronary patient's own stem cells (from bone marrow) into the artery that was blocked. The stem cells appear to repair the patient's heart, making future attacks and also degenerative heart failure much less likely.

This follows on earlier research showing that a coronary patient's own stem cells can help repair damaged heart muscle even before a heart attack.

This is especially interesting to me, as my good grandfather had multiple strokes and heart attacks, one of which killed him at the young age of 70... on New Year's Eve many years ago, sadly. (My other grandfather chewed broken glass and bayed at the moon.)

I suspect this history puts me at risk, though my physicals have never found any heart damage or coronary occlusion.

I'm a great believer in modern medicine (and modern sanitation, and modern preservatives in food); I always go to my annual physical... and if you don't, if you find excuses to skip it or postpone it, remember this:

Those who do not utilize their access to modern medicine have no advantage over those who have no access to modern medicine!

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, November 15, 2006, at the time of 7:42 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this hissing:


The following hissed in response by: David

It's a common tactic. Here in Missouri, I suffered through phone calls and television and print ads on a ballot issue in the recent election where similar muddying of the issue was openly practiced in obvious attempts to decieve voters.

BTW, did you catch the news from Britain on adult stem cell treatment for heart attack patients?

I referenced it here (shameless promotion :-)). Highly interesting to my wife and I since she had agioplasty/stinting followed by a defib implant eight years ago after some SCD incidents. Adult stem cells from the patient's own body to effect repair of the damaged heart muscle. Neat trick.

The above hissed in response by: David [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 15, 2006 10:22 PM

The following hissed in response by: LarryD

My understanding is that research into stem cells (both adult and embryonic) has been going on for decades. Adult stem cell research has resulted in actual treatments; embryonic stem cell research has resulted in zip, nada, nothing. Which is why private investors aren't putting money in the embryonic research. Which is why the embryonic researchers are so desperate for government money.

Given the behavior of embryonic stem cell research advocates over the last year or two, I think the whole field is Snake Oil.

In addition to all the lying, the fact that all of the approved cell lines suddenly turned up "contaminated", is very suspicious. The most generous interpretation is that the people responsible for caring for that material are too incompetent for any job, the alternative is that the "contamination" was deliberate, either to excuse the failure of the research to produce meaningful results, or as a lever to pry unrestricted funding from the government. Or both.

The above hissed in response by: LarryD [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2006 6:36 AM

The following hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr

I'm not sure what safe embryonic stem cell extraction technique you're talking about here; there have been several attempts, some of them purely speculative and one lab-based. If you're talking about the lab-based one where they claim to have removed stem cells without killing the embryo, keep in mind that they're lying. They actually removed so many cells from each embryo that it died, and then they cultured the cells close enough together that the cells survived.

A scientist (as opposed to a publicity hound) would have cultured the related cells apart from each other, since the POINT of the experiment was supposed to be discovering whether it's possible to culture viable embryonic stem cells without having to take a LOT of cells from the same zygote. If the cells can only survive when in the presence of related neighbors it's obvious that you would HAVE to destroy the zygote by taking out enough cells to create a stable culture.

The above hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2006 7:36 AM

The following hissed in response by: JGUNS

I have literally not met one person that understands the difference between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. This issue is yet another one where the media has conveniently kept the public in the dark about the difference between the two. Every time you hear anything about an advance in Stem cell research you are most certainly hearing about Adult stem cells. Even despite the fact that most people confuse adult stem cells with embryonic stem cells, Government shouldn't be taxing people to fund research that is best accomplished in the free market anyway. The media would have everyone assume that if it weren't for the US government, no scientific advances in medicine would ever occur. I can't seem to remember any recent advances in medicine that have anything to do with governments. If embryonic stem cell research was so promising, the private companies would be all over it and there would be no need to extort money from US taxpayers.

As long as the media controls the framing of issues in this country, Liberals will always have the upper hand for their agenda.

The above hissed in response by: JGUNS [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2006 7:54 AM

The following hissed in response by: Big D

I waver between - "sheesh the public is stupid" to "how can you not be stupid when all you hear are lies?"

I'm with Dafydd - my objection to embryonic stem cell research is that the arguments supporting it are completely disingenuous.

In Alaska, we have a "similar" problem with aerial wolf hunting. Here wolves are plentiful. Over time the wolf population increases to a point of unsustainability, having eaten all the game. The wolves then starve to death, and the game population slowly rebounds. Nature red in tooth and claw.

Many Alaska native villages still depend on hunting to provide food for themselves and to maintain their traditional lifestyle. The boom and bust is very hard on villages that can no longer just pick up and move tho where there is more game.

Wildlife managers in the state realized they could prevent the boom and bust of both predator and prey by periodically reducing the number of wolves. This is most efficiently done by aerial hunting (wolves are fast and hard to track. From a small plane they can be easily spotted and shot with a high powered rifle).

It has been done many times over decades, and proven to be highly effective. Wolves are kept under control, and the game thrives. The number of wolves "harvested" by this method is pretty low - It takes surprisingly little to control the booms if you catch them early enough.

Periodically outside money comes into the state and fuels hysterical political campaigns against aerial wolf hunting - calling it cruel and inhuman (never mind that starvation isn't all that pretty, and neither is trapping which is the alternative to reducing wolf populations. Sterilization of male wolves has worked, but is costly.)

How did I diverge here? Ah yes. Like embryonic stem cell research, aerial wolf hunting is a scientific issue that has been highly politicized by unscrupulous individuals for their own reasons. Groups use it to drum up money from donors like a pledge drive.

It falls into the same category with opening ANWAR, coastal drilling, nuclear power, global warming, etc. It worries me that so many complex scientific issues are moving into this arena.

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2006 10:21 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Some of you seem to have taken the odd message from this post that we shouldn't fund embryonic stem-cell research, even if the cells are extracted non-destructively, because it's "fake."

It's not fake. It's not yet effective; but that doesn't make it fake.

Every scientist I have ever read, without exception, who actually works with stem cells -- including scientists who have created bona-fide cures using adult stem cells -- agrees that, while embryonic cells are trickier to work with, they hold far more potential for medical cures (and prevention of disease and other conditions) than do adult or placental cells. The only people saying it's "fake" are either scientists in other disciplines... or complete non-scientists, usually people with a very strong religious-based rejection of the very concept of embryonic stem-cell research.

They are also the ones claiming that scientists who say they have non-destructively removed such cells from embryos are "lying."

Both of these memes are profoundly anti-science, akin to the people who insist that evolution is "unproven," that it's "just a theory," and that "it can't explain [fill in the blank]," the gap du jour.

There are some areas of science where there are deep divisions about the basic principles... such as anthropogenic global warming. But there are others, such as evolution, where no serious working scientist (in the field) demurs.

And the potentiality of embryonic stem-cell research is another such. Find me a scientist working in that field, who is actually respected among his peers, who says ESC research is "fake."

The other argument here, from several, is the extreme libertarian argument that the government should fund no basic science research because "the market will take care of it."

Well, yes; it probably will. Eventually.

Alas, "eventually" can be 50 or 100 years. Just as the market would likely have created rocket and missile technology -- eventually. And eventually, we would have amazing fighter jets... once somebody found a commercial use for missiles and fighter jets, that is, apart from selling them to some government.

(And do we really want purely market-driven military proliferation? Were you a big fan of A.Q. Khan and his operation?)

But sometimes humans alive today, with medical problems today, don't want to wait for "eventually" to eventuate. Sometimes, you really do know a very fruitful area to explore; and in that case, focusing resources on it will really yield fast results, much faster than waiting for very conservative private investors to decide to risk their own money on something that may not be profitable for a couple of decades.

With other types of investment, when all that is needed is some quick engineering -- making faster computers, for example -- the private market works best.

Alternatively, if there are many areas to research and no way to choose one from the rest, but the results are far in the future -- like with nanotechnology -- then the best approach is probably university funding, even if that comes via block grants from the government.

It's a dilemma; but at this stage of human social evolution, it's one to be resolved by balancing competing forces... not by welding down one side of the scales and saying that only research that is profitable enough, quickly enough that VC can fund it is worth doing.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2006 11:36 AM

The following hissed in response by: Hal

You may not know, Dafydd, but there's another team in Europe that came up with an interesting compromise besides. I wrote about it here.

The team took embryos from IVF and let them grow to a certain point. Embryos which ceased dividing after 2 days were considered "dead." However, the group was able to turn those "dead" embryos into viable stem cell lines.

It's an interesting compromise, though it does remind people that IVF is morally fuzzy for some people, too.

The above hissed in response by: Hal [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2006 1:47 PM

The following hissed in response by: LarryD

The fiscal argument:

Adult (ASC), placental (PSC), and embryonic stem cell (ESC)research have all be going on for quite some time, no line of research has a significant advantage or disadvantage in time. The embryonic research has nothing to show for it, the other two actually have therapies.

Until a few years ago, none of this was Federally funded, showing that it doesn't need to be. There are investors who see the payoff, even though it's decades away. They're putting their money on the stronger horses (ASC & PSC), why should the taxpayers be asked to subsidize the weak horse here? Especially since the approved-for-federal-funding ESC cell lines were suddenly found to be contaminated? All of them. You want me to invest money with such incompetents? Add the outright lying the advocates for taxpayer funded ESC research have been doing the last several years, and I no longer trust the field at all. Self defeating tactics. And evidence that taxpayer funding for science can have a big downside.

Remember there is an allocation of resources issue here too, money forcibly allocated into ECS will drain resources away from somewhere else. I'm far from convinced that the market hasn't been doing just fine here.

The theoretical advantage ESC has is challenged by reports that multipotent stem cells can be found in adults (the article is one of two stories I've read about this in the last few years, but it's the only one I have a link for).

The above hissed in response by: LarryD [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2006 2:03 PM

The following hissed in response by: snochasr

Just yesterday, scientists announced that they had taken stem cells from fatty tissue and turned them into smooth muscle that could repair damaged arteries. Unlike embryos, there would be an ample supply of "raw material" if this treatment proves successful.

The above hissed in response by: snochasr [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2006 4:17 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dick E


Thanks for taking the opportunity to "revise and extend your remarks."

A local university here (it’s a big, well respected one) has major programs underway working with both embryonic and adult stem cells.

I have heard and read the remarks of the heads of the two programs. Both program leaders respect, and express enthusiasm for, the importance and the promise of the other's project.

The above hissed in response by: Dick E [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2006 10:36 PM

Post a comment

Thanks for hissing in, . Now you can slither in with a comment, o wise. (sign out)

(If you haven't hissed a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Hang loose; don't shed your skin!)

Remember me unto the end of days?

© 2005-2009 by Dafydd ab Hugh - All Rights Reserved