The Washington Post has published an editorial by Alan I Leshner, Ph.D., and James A. Thomson, Ph.D. The op-ed is evidently in reaction primarily to Charles Krauthammer’s November 30, 2007 column and blurs the line between fact and fiction in order to make a political plea to remove restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Leshner is a psychologist, the Executive Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Executive Publisher of the magazine, Science. Science is the journal that published the two completely fabricated and retracted reports by Wu Suk Hwang about cloning, the letter attacking David Prentice, Ph.D., for his list of adult stem cell therapies, a letter by Dr. Prentice rebutting the attack, and yet another set of attacks-counter attacks. It is also the journal that published the article ahead of print by Thomson and Yu, et. al., describing the reprogramming of adult fibroblast skin cells on November 22, 2007, after the basic research was done using embryonic stem cells funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Thomson is the veterinarian and professor of anatomy at the Genome Center of the University of Wisconsin who first reported embryonic stem cells from human embryos and who confirmed that adult cells can be reprogrammed into embryonic stem cells. Thomson’s institution oversees the NIH program for distributing the Federally funded embryonic stem cell lines and for training researchers to use those cells.
The editorial published December 3, 2007 is titled “Standing in the way of Stem Cell Research.” Notice that there is no distinction made between embryonic stem (ES)cells and adult.
The opening sentence says, “A new way to trick skin cells into acting like embryos changes both everything and nothing at all.” These stem cells do not act like embryos; they act like ES cells. According to Thomson in his report: “The human iPS cells described here meet the defining criteria we originally proposed for human ES cells.”
Leshner and Thomson make the usual claim that ES cells can make all the cells of the body in order to treat spinal cord injuries, brain, heart and other diseases. They do not note that all these cells only come from embryonic stem cells in functioning intact embryos or with very limited, inefficient and difficult methods. In the lab, the stem cell cultures are not homogeneous clumps that can be be easily directed to the desired cells. Instead, the colonies contain cells at different stages of differentiation. Like adult stem cells and progenitor cells, the few stem cells that are amenable to some of the desired cell types must be selected and grown in special environments and nutrients.
No one has yet been able to guarantee that the cells derived from ES cells can be controlled. The risk of introducing a primitive, undirected cell line that will form tumors is the main reason that no one has yet attempted to use these cells in humans. The risk of uncontrolled – tumor causing cells is accompanied with the problem of immune rejection of transplants in patients. Researchers won’t be able to obtain “patient specific” cells unless they are able to clone human embryos or learn to reprogram adult cells.
The letter points out that embryonic stem cells were used to help the researchers know how to grow human ES cells while claiming that funding has limited research, without admitting that research on those ES cells was indeed funded by Federal money. They write about the frozen embryos from IVF that would have been destroyed anyway but do not note that unless the donors of the gametes that join to become the embryo give informed consent prior to fertilization, those embryos are not eligible for ethical research. They don’t mention the pleas for the intentional creation of new, disease specific embryos with the intention of harvesting research material to create ”’disease specific” cell lines (like those made to “model” Fragile X syndrome and cystic fibrosis.)
The authors complain of restrictive funding that prevents young people from doing ES cell research. Then, they say that other countries don’t have the same sort of problems and mention that Yamanaka did his research in Japan. In fact, there are other countries with much more rigid restrictions, and few have spent as much on ES cell research as we have here in the US. (Germany’s policy actually forbids destruction of embryos.) Dr. Yamanakas’ research would have qualified for Federal funding in the US since he didn’t use embryonic stem cells at all in his experiments.
Leshner and Thomson tell us that it “remains to be seen whether reprogrammed skin cells will differ in significant ways from embryonic stem cells.” It also remains to be seen whether human ES cells will ever be used in human beings.
Talk about reactionary science!
Edited 12/4/07 for punctuation, grammar – BBN