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Clinical Results From Embryonic Stem Cells are “Decades Away”

In an article entitled "The Dirty Secret of Embryonic Stem Cell Research", the noted science journalist, author, attorney and director of the Independent Journalism Project, Michael Fumento, writes an eye-opening assessment of the stem cell field.

Michael Fumento begins his article in today’s issue of Forbes by citing the widespread, popular consensus among the general, nonscientific public that cures for all sorts of diseases are imminent, now that the infallible Obama administration has suddenly lifted all restrictions which the nefarious Bush administration imposed upon stem cell research. Such popular consensus, however, is grossly misguided and uninformed, as Mr. Fumento proceeds to demonstrate.

As Mr. Fumento points out, "Quadriplegics probably shouldn’t sign up for the New York City Marathon just yet. If these cures are just around the corner, this corner is far, far away. And that’s according to embryonic stem cell researchers and funding advocates themselves. The time frame for the first of those miracles seems routinely to be given as a ‘decade’, as in ‘a decade away’ or ‘a decade off.’ And it keeps shifting."

Fumento then reminds the reader that in 1998, when Dr. James Thomson isolated the first human embryonic stem cell in the laboratory, it was reported in an article at that time that Dr. Thomson and his colleagues themselves "warn that such clinical applications are perhaps as much as a decade away." That was in 1998, which by now was over a decade ago – and still, as of 2009, there have not yet been any clinical applications, not even one, that have resulted from human embryonic stem cell research. Continuing from the 1998 article, as Fumento then adds, "Check your calendar. Addressing a 2007 Wisconsin convention 9 years later, Thomson articulated that the time frame had shifted to ‘decades away’, plural."

As Fumento goes on to explain, "The scientists didn’t blame too little federal funding, as have others, according to the Associated Press. Rather, Thomson blamed simple biology. Among other problems, embryonic stem cells require permanent use of dangerous immunosuppressive drugs. They have a nasty tendency to form tumors both malignant and benign including teratomas – meaning ‘monster tumor’. Teratomas can grow larger than a football and can contain eyeball parts, hair and teeth." As Fumento further exclaims, "Yech!"

He goes on to ponder, "OK, so how many ‘decades’?" Among others, the answer is given by William Haseltine, former CEO of The Human Genome Project, who told the Agence France Presse in 2001 that, "The routine utilization of human embryonic stem cells for medicine is 20 to 30 years hence", to which Haseltine further added, "The timeline to commercialization is so long that I simply would not invest." There are other embryonic stem cell researchers, however, who believe that "3 to 5 decades" is more realistic, while the British fertility expert and Imperial College, London University professor Lord Robert Winston proclaimed in a 2005 lecture that, "I am not entirely convinced that embryonic stem cells will, in my lifetime and possibly anybody’s lifetime for that matter, be holding quite the promise that we desperately hope they will," further adding that "one of the problems is that in order to persuade the public that we must do this work, we often go rather too far in promising what we might achieve."

Fumento further points out that the 2007 AP article stated, "One day, some believe embryonic stem cells will become sources of brain tissue, muscle and bone marrow to replace diseased or injured body parts." In other words, maybe "one day" in the future, even though such goals have not yet been attained with human embryonic stem cells, not even as recently as 2007 nor even today in 2009. Meanwhile, however, various types of adult stem cells have already been differentiated into these and other types of tissue, decades ago. As Fumento explains, "Life-saving marrow regeneration with stem cells dates back to 1956."

Additionally, "Adult stem cells have now treated scores of illnesses including many cancers, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, immunodeficiency disorders, neural degenerative diseases, anemias and other blood conditions," Fumento points out. "They’ve been used in over 2,000 human clinical trials. There has never been an embryonic stem cell clinical trial. Former National Institutes of Health director Dr. Bernardine Healy, once an embryonic stem cell research enthusiast, now calls them ‘obsolete’."

Indeed, as previously reported a number of times on this website, Dr. James Thomson himself – widely revered as "the father of embryonic stem cell science" – has often emphasized the importance of other types of cells, especially iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells, over embryonic stem cells. In fact, the company which Dr. Thomson cofounded, Cellular Dynamics International, has as its primary focus today the commercialization of iPS cells, not embryonic stem cells – and not for the development of actual cell-based clinical therapies, but instead for the use of these iPS cells in drug screening and pharmaceutical development. (Please see a number of articles on this website related to Cellular Dynamics International, including but not limited to those entitled, "Leading Researcher Joins Cellular Dynamics", dated July 22, 2009; "Wisconsin Stem Cell Company Announces Licensing Agreement", dated July 15, 2009; "Cellular Dynamics Creates iPS Cells From Human Blood", dated July 8, 2009; and "Cellular Dynamics and Mount Sinai Sign Licensing Agreement", dated May 29, 2009).

As Fumento concludes, "In justifying his stem cell research executive order, President Barack Obama cited ‘a consensus of the majority of Americans.’ Actually, the polling responses vary tremendously depending on the questions asked. But no decision is better than the information upon which it’s based. What might Americans think if they knew the embryonic stem cell reseach ‘decades away’ secret?"

(Please see a number of articles on this website related to the embryonic stem cell versus adult stem cell controversy, including but not limited to that entitled, "Former Director of N.I.H. Explains Why Embryonic Stem Cells are Obsolete", dated March 4, 2009, as originally reported in U.S. News & World Report).

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