Stem cell spin

Sometimes, the best scientific argument over a controversial bioethical issue is just dry and uninteresting to anyone but the science and medical comunity.

So Dr. Gerard Nadal does this thought experiment.

Imagine one is dining in a family restaurant and there are three different families, each with five children. Family A has children who are engaged in a food fight, screaming and jumping about.

Family B has children who are generally very well behaved but are given to bouts of restlessness and need to be spoken to by their parents.

Family C has children who are models of decorum, and who on their own have even taken it upon themselves to quietly clean up some of the mess left by other patrons.

That’s the stem cell war in a nutshell.

Clever. He explains how the analogy works in each case.

Now, back to our analogy. Imagine a reporter comes to the restaurant looking to do a story on children’s manners in restaurants but spends 90% of her time interviewing the father of Family A. He makes not one mention of his children’s recklessness and destructiveness, not one mention of the exemplary behavior of the children in Family C, but instead he holds forth on the dire future of the children in Family B, whose behavior is merely in need of periodic tweaking.

If that sounds unbalanced and bizarre, that’s the essential structure and trajectory of a recent Reuters article by Julie Steenhuysen, entitled “Imperfections mar hopes for reprogrammed stem cells.”

The core of the article is built around the father of Family A, Dr. George Daley of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

In other words, intellectally dishonest and obviously tendentious.

…Dr. Daley makes no mention at all of Family C, the adult stem cells, which have over one hundred therapeutic applications. In so doing, he fails to grasp the essential reason why induced pluripotent stem cells were sought after. It’s because biologically, embryonic stem cells are wild and untamable, while adult stem cells have gone through the process of cellular maturation naturally and are remarkably stable. They are also expensive to isolate, which is an economic limitation to their widespread use. Also, as embryonic stem cells come from another person, there is the issue of tissue rejection by the recipient.

And that’s happening, time and again. But we aren’t hearing that from the proponents of embryonic stem cells, because they’re too invested in the biotech industry that relies those unruly cells.

That famous line from Jurassic Park comes to mind again. Life finds a way.

After the stem cell ruling

The Obama administration promised to challenge the ruling last week forbidding use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. As soon as it came down, the scramble was on.

New guidelines were still being penned as lawyers headed into court trying to halt the changes.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — still reeling from a District Court ruling that blocked the use of federal funds for embryonic cell research — issued new guidance last night detailing how it will comply with the Court’s preliminary injunction.

Judge Royce Lamberth, a Reagan appointee, stunned the medical community when he issued the preliminary injunction against the federal funding saying it was in violation of a 1996 law that forbids the use of such funds when an embryo is destroyed or damaged.

As early as today, the Obama administration is set to appeal the August 23rd ruling.

They were already in the process as that news report came out.

The Obama administration urged a judge to allow federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research to continue while it appeals his decision banning government support for any activity using cells taken from human embryos.

The Justice Department today asked U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington to put on hold his decision pending an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. The government argued that Lamberth’s preliminary injunction changed the status quo and will itself cause irreparable harm to researchers, taxpayers and scientific progress.

Lifting the ban would allow the government to continue funneling tens of millions of dollars to scientists seeking cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, and genetic conditions.

Which is what this is all about, money and profit. While all these millions of dollars are funneled to controversial and unsuccessful embryonic stem cell research, grants have been denied or diverted from scientists working on ethical and successful adult stem cell research and therapies. That’s what produced the lawsuit in the first place, since federal law doesn’t permit federal funding of embryo-destructive research, and the Obama administration has skirted that law until now.

White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said in a statement that embryonic stem-cell research is a top priority for the administration. “We’re going to do everything possible to make sure to avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of this injunction.”

That’s the kind of hyperbole surrounding the public opinion campaign marketing the idea that embryonic stem cell research is the only hope for sufferers of degenerative diseases and disabilities.

“The government is seeking a stay of the court’s injunction to prevent the irreparable harm and financial harm that could occur if these lifesaving research projects are forced to abruptly shut down,” Justice Department spokesperson Tracy Schmaler said in a statement. “The great potential for significant additional medical breakthroughs is at risk if this research is halted pending the appeals process.”

Lamberth’s injunction “causes irrevocable harm to the millions of extremely sick or injured people who stand to benefit from continuing research, as well as taxpayers who have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this research through public funding of projcts which will not be forced to shut down,” she said.

(presume that should have read “public funding of projects which will now be forced to shut down”)

At least this forces out details of the spending spree the government has been on with this controversial project.

In a declaration filed with the notice, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said the NIH had invested more than $546 million in the research since 2001 and that therefore the “anticipated financial loss to NIH and the taxpaying public is enormous and would include the hundreds of millions already spent on on interrupted projects and the administative costs of shutting down and restarting the NIH funding, Schmaler said.

The court order prevents the NIH from providing $54 million to 24 projects already underway that were expecting to be renewed by the end of September, Collins said….

In addition, $270 million that has already been spent on these grants “will have been wasted as investigators and labs can neither finish their curent projects nor pursue what has been learned,” the statement said.

Got that? Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars “wasted” on science that was unproven, unsuccessful and unlawful and unethical.

The court ruled that such research is likely to be in violation of federal law known as the “Dickey/Wicker Amendment” that prohibits federal funds from being used on research that involves the destruction of human embryos…

“If one step…of an ESC [embryonic stem cell] research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding,” the district court’s preliminary injunction order states.  “Because ESC research requires the derivation of ESCs, ESC research is research in which an embryo is destroyed.  Accordingly, the Court concludes that, by allowing federal funding of ESC research, the Guidelines are in violation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.”

Such clarification from the Alliance Defense Fund helped make the case they presented to the D.C. Circuit Court, which led to this ruling.

“The American people should not be forced to pay for experiments – prohibited by federal law – that destroy human life,” says ADF Senior Legal Counsel Steven H. Aden.  “The court is simply enforcing an existing law passed by Congress that liberates Americans from paying for needless, destructive research on human embryos.

Some hundreds of millions of dollars, and countless human lives, later.

But the government is after the ruling and this is, for now, a temporary stay. Of execution, so to speak.

On Aug. 27, researchers inside the NIH who work with human embryonic stem cells were instructed to “initiate procedures to terminate these projects” in a memo from Michael Gottesman, deputy director for intramural research…

Better than terminating life. And better to give funding to the projects that are producing really promising and successful results.