December 06, 2007
Setting the record straight on stem cells

Last week, the Chron published a characteristic piece of tripe from Charles Krauthammer, in which he claimed that the recent breakthrough by American scientist James A. Thomson and his Japanese colleague Shinya Yamanaka on an embryo-free way to produce genetically matched stem cells vindicated President Bush's policies that forbid embryonic stem cell research in the US. Now Thomson has joined with Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science, to print a rebuttal to Krauthammer's foolishness.

Far from vindicating the current U.S. policy of withholding federal funds from many of those working to develop potentially lifesaving embryonic stem cells, recent papers in the journals Science and Cell described a breakthrough achieved despite political restrictions. In fact, work by both the U.S. and Japanese teams that reprogrammed skin cells depended entirely on previous embryonic stem cell research.

At a time when nearly 60 percent of Americans support human embryonic stem cell research, U.S. stem cell policy runs counter to both scientific and public opinion. President Bush's repeated veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which has twice passed the House and Senate with votes from Republicans and Democrats alike, further ignores the will of the American people.

Efforts to harness the versatility of embryonic stem cells, and alleviate suffering among people with an array of debilitating disorders, began less than 10 years ago. Since then, scientists have continued to pursue embryonic stem cells because of their ability to transform into blood, bone, skin or any other type of cell. The eventual goal is to replace diseased or dysfunctional cells to help people with spinal cord injuries, neurodegenerative disorders, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions.

Since 1998, many strategies for addressing sanctity-of-life concerns have been pursued. While commendable, these efforts remain preliminary, and none so far has suggested a magic bullet. In the same way, the recent tandem advances in the United States and by Shinya Yamanaka's team in Japan are far from being a Holy Grail, as Charles Krauthammer inaccurately described them. Though potential landmarks, these studies are only a first step on the long road toward eventual therapies.

Krauthammer's central argument -- that the president's misgivings about embryonic stem cell research inspired innovative alternatives -- is fundamentally flawed, too. Yamanaka was of course working in Japan, and scientists around the world are pursuing the full spectrum of options, in many cases faster than researchers in the United States.

One hopes that having published Krauthammer's fantasies, the Chron will see fit to follow it up with the facts. One would think they owe their readers that much.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 06, 2007 to Technology, science, and math