The Stem Cell Revolution

The February 9th, 2009 issue of Time Magazine features a cover story entitled, “How the Coming Revolution in Stem Cells Could Save Your Life.” Plastered across the magazine’s front cover is a photograph of a colorful pink and blue blob which is identified as an “induced pluripotent stem cell from an ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) patient.”

Not surprisingly, this is not the first time that the topic of stem cells has been chosen for the cover of Time Magazine. Among their numerous articles on the subject and its related personalities over the years, Time Magazine also featured a cover story about stem cells in the August 7th, 2006 issue, entitled, “The Truth About Stem Cells: The Hope, The Hype, and What it Means For You”. At that time, plastered across the front cover of the magazine was a microscopic enlargement of a pink and green blob which was identified as an “adult bone marrow stem cell”. The 2006 cover story was ten pages long, 9 pages of which contained text; by comparison, this year’s cover story is only 6 pages long, a mere 5 pages of which contain text. Given the rapid pace of advancements that have transpired in the stem cell field over the past 3 years, one might logically expect a recent article on the topic to be at least as long as, if not even longer than, an article that was written 3 years ago; and perhaps the 2009 article might have been longer than it is, had the author thought to include the topic of adult stem cells. But, for whatever reason, and unlike the 2006 article, the 2009 article is instead devoted exclusively to the topic of everything else but adult stem cells.

In the 2006 article, the reader’s eye was immediately drawn to a two-page illustration of stem cells stretching across pages 42 and 43 of the issue, which is strikingly similar to the two-page illustration that also stretches across pages 42 and 43 of the 2009 issue. As in the 2006 issue, as one might expect, the co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, Dr. Douglas Melton, is also extensively interviewed in the 2009 issue. Unlike the 2006 issue, however, the 2009 issue is devoted exclusively to descriptions of research with embryonic stem cells and iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells, with practically no mention whatsoever of adult stem cells nor of the extraordinary progress that has already been achieved with adult stem cell therapies. In fact, rather than being a scientifically objective presentation of the pros and cons of various types of stem cells, the 2009 article appears to be more along the lines of either a personal biographical tribute to Douglas Melton, or a form of retribution directed against “the dark days of the Bush Administration’s stem-cell restrictions”, or both. But balanced and unbiased, it is not.

Indeed, the 2009 Time Magazine cover story points out, in reference to Dr. Melton’s work, that “Melton’s motivation was, again, both professional and intensely personal,” since this distinguished scientist has two children who suffer from type 1 diabetes: a son who was diagnosed with the disease 17 years ago at the age of 6 months, and a daughter who was also diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 8 years ago at the age of 14. Certainly, no reader would question the relevance nor the importance of personal experiences such as these, which were highly influential in changing the entire direction of Dr. Melton’s career. One does, however, question how it is possible that, in any article which claims to inform readers about a “coming revolution in stem cells” which might “save your life”, the author of the article could systematically avoid all mention of adult stem cell therapies which already exist and which have already been saving lives in clinics around the world. Instead, in an article which purports to inform readers about medical therapies which are so urgently and desperately needed by so many people, not only by Dr. Melton’s children, the author of this article chooses only to feature embryonic stem cells and iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells, which do not exist at all as therapies. Indeed, the safety and efficacy of embryonic and iPS cells are so questionable that it might be another decade or longer before such cells can be used as clinical therapies, assuming that they can ever be safely and effectively used as clinical therapies at all. And yet, in this article, embryonic stem cells and iPS cells are inaccurately presented as the only possible source of future stem cell therapies for people who are suffering from disease and injury. Perhaps adult stem cells were entirely and mysteriously excluded from this article because adult stem cells do not represent a “coming revolution” but instead represent a current revolution that has already arrived and is already fully upon us and is already taking place at this very moment, in the here-and-now, on a global basis, if anyone would care to notice. By sharp contrast to adult stem cells, however, the therapeutic viability of embryonic stem cells and even of iPS cells is still entirely hypothetical and no one can predict with any certainty when, if ever, embryonic or iPS cells might be available as clinical therapies, but even the most determined of embryonic stem cell experts do not expect embryonic stem cell nor iPS cell therapies to be available in less than a decade.

If there are any dangers that are associated with adult stem cells, or if there had ever been any problems that were ever found with the numerous FDA-approved clinical trials that have already been conducted with adult stem cells, then this would have been the place to highlight and feature such dangers and problems; but instead, the entire topic of adult stem cells is categorically ignored altogether throughout this 2009 Time Magazine cover story. Nowhere to be found at all, adult stem cell therapies are conspicuous by their absence from the whole article. Of course, the numerous clinical applications of adult stem cells have only yielded dramatic successes, not failures, but apparently the purpose of this article was not to inform the public of successful medical breakthroughs that have already occurred. Instead, the purpose of this article seems to have been to inflate public hopes and expectations for future medical breakthroughs that might not ever occur. Oddly enough, however, the author of this 2009 Time Magazine article does acknowledge some, though not all, of the dangers associated with embronic and other types of pluripotent stem cells, as the author clearly states, “Even iPS cells have yet to prove that they are a safe and suitable substitute for the diseased cells they might eventually replace in a patient. Ensuring their safety would require doing away with dangerous genes that can also cause cancer, as well as the retroviral carriers that Yamanaka [the discoverer of iPS cells] originally used.” But nowhere in this article are teratomas ever mentioned, despite the fact that the ability of an embryonic stem cell, and an iPS cell, to form this particularly hideous and dangerous type of tumor is, by definition, one of the requirements by which embryonic and iPS and other types of pluripotent stem cells are identified in laboratories throughout the world. Interestingly, the author makes reference to Geron’s highly publicized upcoming clinical trial with human embryonic stem cells – the first of its kind, and the first ever to attain approval from the U.S. FDA – without actually mentioning the Geron Corporation by name, and also without ever mentioning any of the problems that are inherent in this clinical trial. (Please see the related news article on this website entitled “Geron’s Efforts in Europe are Thwarted”, dated February 13, 2009). Geron’s clinical trial has not even begun patient enrollment yet, and data from the Phase I trial will not even be available until 2011 at the earliest, yet nevertheless this clinical trial was deemed worthy of mention in the article, even though, for whatever reason, the name of the Geron Corporation itself was not; however, nowhere in the article is there any mention whatsoever of any of the adult stem cell companies that have already conducted FDA-approved clinical trials with adult stem cells, such as, most obviously, Osiris Therapeutics, which is already legendary within the scientific community for its pioneering work and repeated, consistent success with its adult stem cell therapies in a number of FDA-approved clinical trials that have already advanced to Phase III. Of course, the fact that Osiris Therapeutics is never mentioned even once in this article would, presumably, have nothing to do with the fact that Osiris Therapeutics is strictly an adult stem cell company, the exclusive focus of which is the development of clinical therapies from adult stem cells, not from embryonic stem cells. Certainly, members of the media would never be biased against adult stem cell companies; instead, we can only give members of the media the benefit of the doubt by magnanimously concluding that they simply don’t understand the scientific and medical differences between these various types of stem cells and stem cell companies, because if they did understand the differences, they would be blowing trumpets from the rooftops of their buildings in excitement over the revolutionary life-saving successes that have already been achieved with adult stem cells.

Some statements within the 2009 Time Magazine article are fundamentally inexplicable, and leave anyone with a true scientific understanding of stem cells scratching his or her head, such as the statement that, “…embryonic stem cells remain the gold standard for any treatments that find their way into the clinic…”, which is a puzzling cliam, to say the least, especially in light of the fact that embryonic stem cells have never advanced to any type of treatment that has ever found its way into the clinic at all. The only type of “gold standard” with which embryonic stem cells are associated is their ability to form the specific type of tumor known as a teratoma, which literally is the “gold standard” by which laboratories around the world identify embryonic and iPS and all other types of pluripotent cells, since the ability to form a teratoma is part of the official scientific definition of pluripotency. Don’t expect to find any mention of teratomas, however, in this article, nor a fairly representative reporting of scientific discoveries and advancements in the stem cell field, since such facts and perspectives are not to be found here. Regarding “treatments that find their way into the clinic”, only adult stem cells, not embryonic stem cells, have ever advanced to the level of actual therapies that have ever found their way into the clinic, yet this fact is never mentioned, not even once, in this entire 2009 Time Magazine article; to the contrary, there seems to be a concerted effort made throughout this article to create the exact opposite, and entirely erroneous, impression.

Of course, the 2006 Time Magazine cover story on stem cells was not without its inaccuracies either. In that issue, in a small side-paragraph entitled “umbilical-cord cells”, under the subheading “Drawbacks”, the author wrote, “An umbilical cord is not very long and doesn’t hold enough cells to treat an adult.” If sentences such as this don’t leave legitimate stem cell scientists cross-eyed and scratching their heads, nothing will, and the most common reaction among scientists that this type of statement most frequently evokes is a simple, “huh?” Apparently, the author of the 2006 Time Magazine cover story had never heard of cell isolation or expansion – even without which, umbilical cord blood is still one of the most plentiful and overly-abundant sources of adult stem cells in the world, being freely and easily accessible everywhere throughout the world, on a daily basis, to such an extent that at any given moment we actually have much more than we could ever possibly use, even if we wanted to treat the entire population of the planet. Even the adult stem cells known as ERCs (endometrial regenerative cells), which are collected in even smaller volumes than umbilical cord blood, are expandable to quantities that outnumber the human population of the planet. Furthermore, given the numerous chemical, molecular and immunological properties of adult stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood, all of which are highly advantageous properties, it is laughable to cite the physical length of an umbilical cord as a “drawback”. But of course, journalists are not usually scientists, and therefore should not be expected to think and reason as scientists do, even though journalists have taken upon themselves the very serious responsibility of reporting scientific news, presumably in an accurate and truthful manner. It could hardly be considered complex science to make the simple observation that children are born every day throughout the entire world, and therefore umbilical cord blood is abundantly available every day throughout the entire world; yet somehow, in an article that was published in 2006 in one of the leading and most trusted magazines in the world, even this simple and obvious fact was lost and obscured by an irrelevant and scientifically false comment.

If anyone really cared about helping the people who suffer from disease and injury and who could benefit from stem cell therapy, and who are in fact in desperate and urgent need of such therapy, would it not seem reasonable at least to mention the FDA-approved clinical trials and actual clinical successes that have already been achieved with adult stem cells? Especially among scientists and journalists, how is it conscienable to completely, categorically, systematically ignore even the mere mention of adult stem cell therapies, when there are numerous people for whom such adult stem cell therapies could literally make the difference between life and death?

At least the 2006 article did mention that adult stem cells “exist in many major tissues, including the blood, skin and brain. They can be coaxed to produce more cells of a specific lineage and do not have to be extracted from embryos.” Strangely, the 2009 article fails to mention even this basic fact. The 2006 article did, despite its other flaws, at least point out that umbilical cords are “useful” because, according to the author, “Although they are primarily made up of blood stem cells, they also contain stem cells that can turn into bone, cartilage, heart muscle and brain and liver tissue. Like adult stem cells, they are harvested without the need for embryos.” By comparison, the 2009 article makes no mention whatsoever of umbilical cord blood at all, nor, in fact, is there any mention whatsoever of adult stem cell therapies, period. There is barely any mention of the fact that there is such a thing as adult stem cells and that they exist at all. In a semantically ambiguous phrasing of words, there is a reference in the 2009 article to stem cells that “can be created from adult cells”, which is stated in a partial sentence that hangs in mid-air next to an illustration of an “egg cell” in which somatic cell nuclear transfer, “genetic transfer” with retroviruses and four genes, and “safer transfer” with “chemicals or safer viruses”, are symbolically depicted. Of course, stem cells that are “created from adult cells” are not the same as “adult stem cells”, since the former (referring to iPS cells and to those other types of cells that are created by somatic cell nuclear transfer, “genetic transfer” and “safer transfer”, whatever exactly that will turn out to be) still pose a number of risks including tumor formation, whereas the latter (adult stem cells) do not pose any such risks, which is precisely why the former do not exist as clinical therapies whereas the latter (adult stem cells) do; but exactly how the non-scientific reader would ever be able to deduce such facts from this article is anyone’s guess. If nothing else, at least the adult stem cells known as mesenchymal stem cells, which are derivable from bone marrow as well as umbilical cord blood, could have been mentioned somewhere in this article, since these cells have already enjoyed a very well documented clinical history for decades. But alas, apparently even mesenchymal stem cells were forbidden from enjoying the right to “equal opportunity” in this article. The mere title of this cover story, “How the Coming Revolution in Stem Cells Could Save Your Life”, might logically imply some mention of the types of stem cells that have already saved lives, and which have already achieved a revolution in medical science; and those types of stem cells are adult, not embryonic, stem cells. Instead, perhaps the cover of this particular issue of Time Magazine could have been more accurately entitled, “How the Dangerous and Problematic Embryonic and iPS Cells Might Never Be Developed into Therapies That Could Save Your Life.”

If nothing else, the most recent, 2009 Time Magazine cover story does manage to offer resounding proof of an explanation for one long-standing mystery, which is, namely, why the general public is usually so confused about stem cells. Without objective and balanced scientific reporting, especially from the most established and respected names in the media, of course the average non-scientific lay person cannot be expected to understand even the most fundamental of scientific facts and principles behind any particular issue. In a few more years, perhaps some time around 2012 or so, maybe Time Magazine might publish yet another cover story about stem cells, by which time perhaps the publishing powers-that-be might not completely and deliberately ignore the increasing number of successes that are being achieved every day with adult stem cells, nor the increasing number of dangers and risks that are inextricably linked to embryonic stem cells and to iPS cells. Perhaps it will take a few more years before it is once again “politically correct” even to mention the topic of adult stem cell therapies, and thereby to publish a scientifically objective article about a critically important scientific field. The very same people who accuse the previous Administration of using politics and ideology instead of science to dictate policy, are in fact now guilty themselves of the very same thing, as they attempt to impose their own personal biases and prejudices upon others through the exact same fatally flawed approach. Hopefully, at some time in the future, perhaps both sides of the great political and ethical divide might be able to agree upon the same scientific facts; but how many people will die in the next few years, as they patiently wait for the media to get around to reporting accurately and truthfully about medical therapies with adult stem cells that already exist and are already available?

One thing is certain, though, as Dr. David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, is quoted as saying in the 2009 Time Magazine article: “It’s a wonderful time [for the stem-cell field]. Keep your seat belt on, because this ride is going to be wild.” At the very least, no one can argue with that claim.

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