Regenerative Medicine

Lancet Calls For Caution In Touting Potential For Embryonic Stem Cells (6/05)

The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal calls recent headlines that claim research using embryonic stem cells will lead to cures for an almost unending number of diseases to be “sensationalist” and “hype” even though the journal favors embryo-destructive research.

In an editorial in the June 4 edition titled “Stem cell research: hope and hype,” The Lancet noted the findings of a recent meeting of researchers in London, also supportive of embryonic stem cell research, who found that, “no safe and effective stem cell therapy will be widely available for at least a decade, and possibly longer.”

Recent news that South Korean scientists successfully cloned a human embryo has increased the visibility of bold claims by those favoring embryo-destructive research that miracle cures for everything from Alzheimer’s to diabetes are around the corner if such research is allowed. Recent debate in the House of Representative over legislation that would provide federal funding for embryo-destructive research was filled with emotional pleas from House members on both sides of the aisle who claimed that such funding offered the best hope for family members struck with a variety of diseases.

The Lancet also published a commentary from Neil Scolding, a British neurology researcher at the University of Bristol, highlighting the numerous technical problems with embryonic stem cell research. “[A]n increasing appreciation of the hazards of embryonic stem cells has rightly prevented the emergence or immediate prospect of any clinical therapies based on such cells. The natural propensity of embryonic stem cells to form [tumors], their exhibition of chromosomal abnormalities, and abnormalities in cloned mammals all present difficulties.”

Scolding says that the “prospect of having to clone . . . every patient requiring therapy is surely unrealistic” and notes that the recent “Korean report of cloning human embryos for stem cells used almost 250 human eggs in generating a single stem cell line.”

Scolding goes on to say that these problems only compound the ethical concerns that come from embryo-destructive research. “[W]hat is unarguable is that the human embryo is alive and is human, and intentionally ending the life of one human being for the potential benefit of others (ie, for research) is not territory to which mainstream clinical researchers have hitherto sought claim – or which ethically conscious objectors could ever concede.”

Scolding insists that this does not mean that the future of stem cells is dead. “Far from it, for the embryonic stem cell story forms only one aspect,” he says, remarking that adult stem cell therapies have overcome some of the early challenges to their effectiveness.

“Fortunately, for the now highly expectant patient, reports of the death of adult stem cells were greatly exaggerated.”

Scolding points to successful treatments using bone marrow-derived stem cells as well as recent achievements using adult stem cells to treat patients with corneal disease. “The next few years, not decades, will show whether adult stem cell treatments are to join the mainstream therapeutic arsenal,” he said in what could be seen as a reference to the uncertain future of embryonic stem cells.  [Culture of Life Foundation, 14June05]