CNN Guest on Embryo Destruction: 'Religious Right' Also Opposed Anesthesia and Cornea Transplants

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN Senior Medical Correspondent; & Dr. Thomas Okarma, CEO of Geron Corporation | NewsBusters.orgDuring a segment on Friday’s Newsroom program, CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen heralded the FDA’s approval of the first human clinical trial involving embryo-destroying stem cell research. Cohen then gave a soft interview of the president and CEO of the company involved in the trial, who made the bizarre claim that new medical breakthroughs, including corneal transplants and anesthesia for women in childbirth, were supposedly “always met with concerns from the Religious Right” in the past. Cohen did not follow-up to this statement by the CEO.

The segment, which began 17 minutes into the 11 am Eastern hour of the CNN program, began with anchor Tony Harris trumpeting how the FDA’s approval of the embryonic stem cell clinical trial represented “major milestone in this field of research.” He then asked Cohen to “explain to us how significant a day this is.” The correspondent gushed in reply, “This is a big day, and I will tell you, I interviewed Christopher Reeve many times about stem cells, and I think he would probably be smiling if he were here to see this day.” She did not bring up the moral objections to embryo destruction in her explanation of the breaking news item which followed, just that “some say that some of this research has been overblown, and a it’s not quite as promising as many people say.”

Cohen then introduced Doctor Thomas Okarma, the president and CEO of the Geron Corporation, the biomedical research outfit involved in the clinical trial. She first asked the “Christopher Reeve” question -- if the technology could “make human beings who are paraplegic walk again.” When Okarma answered that patients might see “modest improvement in patients with so-called complete injuries who are paralyzed for life,” Cohen replied, “So if people are hearing this and are thinking, oh, wow, with this treatment, paraplegics are going to hop out of their wheelchairs and walk again, you’re telling us, right now, be a little more realistic.”

Later, the medical correspondent concluded by asking a question which oversimplified conservatives’ objections to embryonic stem cell research: “Now, in 2001 -- you know this well -- there was an outcry. There were some folks who said embryonic stem cell research involves destroying an embryo and they were incensed. They said that this research should not go on. Are you hearing from those folks now or has some of that uproar died down?”

Okarma’s strange reply:
OKARMA: Well, most of the uproar has died down, and we would hope that if we show safety and utility in this clinical trial, it will go away forever. This is a new idea, and any new idea as big as this one always generates controversy. So the first corneal transplant, the first use of anesthesia to achieve painless childbirth -- historically, these were always met with concerns from the Religious Right. So we hope to demonstrate that using an embryo that would have been destroyed or discarded to treat millions of patients with chronic disease is a very ethical step forward.

The “Religious Right” opposed corneal transplants? That’s news to the University of Louisville’s Lion Eye Bank. On their frequently asked questions webpage about cornea/eye donation, the Eye Bank answered that “[c]ornea/eye donations are consistent with the beliefs and attitudes of major religions.” Also, on the issue of anesthesia for women undergoing childbirth, the Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, in an article marking the sesquicentennial (one hundred fiftieth anniversary) of the first modern obstetric anesthetic in 1847, cited a paper which “debunks the idea that the physicians objected to anesthesia for religious reasons - a myth...perpetuated by generations of writers.”

The full transcript of the segment from Friday’s Newsroom program:

TONY HARRIS: Breaking news in medicine now  -- the U.S. government has approved the world’s first known embryonic stem cell trial in humans. It is something ‘Superman’ actor Christopher Reeve fought hard for. He helped propel spinal cord injury into the national spotlight after his own paralysis. Now, a little more than four years after his death, his wish coming true -- the stem cell study aimed at spinal injury. It is a major milestone in this field of research. CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is joining me now to talk about, and Elizabeth, explain to us how significant a day this is.

ELIZABETH COHEN: This is a big day, and I will tell you, I interviewed Christopher Reeve many times about stem cells, and I think he would probably be smiling if he were here to see this day. Let me tell you what’s happening -- stem cell -- embryonic stem cell research has been going on for about a decade now, but it’s never been tried out in human clinical trials. So today, the Geron Corporation announced that they’re going to try it out in human beings who’ve had spinal cord injuries. What we’re talking about is stem cells that are taken from a human embryo -- the embryo is destroyed, the stem cells taken out, turned into a treatment, given to people with spinal cord injuries -- first known clinical trial happening this summer.

HARRIS: And I know you have a guest coming up -- a very special guest coming up --

COHEN: Yes.

HARRIS: But one more quick question. What kind of potential does this research hold?

COHEN: You know, it holds potential, not just for spinal cord injury, but also for other diseases. The Geron Corporation says that they want to start human trials also for folks who have heart problems, folks who have liver problems -- these treatments might hold promise for Parkinson’s disease, for other kinds of illnesses. Now, some say that some of this research has been overblown, and a it’s not quite as promising as many people say, and now, well, we’re going the find out. They’re definitely putting it to the test. We have with us Dr. Thomas Okarma. He’s the president and CEO of the Geron Corporation. Good morning, Doctor Okarma.

DOCTOR THOMAS OKARMA, THE GERON CORPORATION: Good morning.

COHEN: Thanks for joining us today.

OKARMA: You’re welcome.

COHEN: My big question for you, sir, is your company has made paraplegic mice walk again using these human embryonic stem cells. Do you think you can make human beings who are paraplegic walk again using this treatment?

OKARMA: Well, that’s obviously our hope. What we actually expect to see is modest improvement in patients with so-called complete injuries who are paralyzed for life. Slight improvements in sensation, bladder control, locomotion -- could be amplified with physical therapy. So we’re trying to fit the frame-shift outcome from one of no hope to one of progressive rehabilitation.

COHEN: So if people are hearing this and are thinking, oh, wow, with this treatment, paraplegics are going to hop out of their wheelchairs and walk again, you’re telling us, right now, be a little more realistic.

OKARMA: Exactly, and also, the first set of trials will be limited to patients who’ve had their injury within seven to 14 days of the injection. So in our animal work, we’ve shown that these cells do not work months after the injury.

COHEN: Right, that’s an important point, that it has to be a relatively new injury. Dr. Okarma, talk to us about other research using you’re doing. You want to use human embryonic stem cells for people with other kinds of problems. Can you talk to me about that?

OKARMA: Well, we’ve learned to make eight different differentiated cells, each of which addresses a major unmet chronic disease, so heart muscle cells for heart failure, eyelets for diabetes, liver cells for liver failure, condrocytes or cartilage for arthritis, bone cells for osteoporosis, and an immune cell for cancer immunotherapy. So our initial pipeline of embryonic stem cell base products addresses an enormous number of patients with chronic diseases whose symptoms are only mildly met by using pharmaceuticals.

COHEN: Now, in 2001 -- you know this well -- there was an outcry. There were some folks who said embryonic stem cell research involves destroying an embryo and they were incensed. They said that this research should not go on. Are you hearing from those folks now or has some of that uproar died down?

OKARMA: Well, most of the uproar has died down, and we would hope that if we show safety and utility in this clinical trial, it will go away forever. This is a new idea, and any new idea as big as this one always generates controversy. So the first corneal transplant, the first use of anesthesia to achieve painless childbirth -- historically, these were always met with concerns from the Religious Right. So we hope to demonstrate that using an embryo that would have been destroyed or discarded to treat millions of patients with chronic disease is a very ethical step forward.

COHEN: Dr. Okarma, thank you for joining us from California to talk about embryonic stem cells, and we’d like to see how the Geron Corporation trials continue. We look forward to hearing from you again.

OKARMA: Thank you.

HARRIS: Will you keep us posted, please, on the progress here?

COHEN: I will -- fascinating stuff -- absolutely

HARRIS: Yeah, what a day. Ok, Elizabeth -- appreciate it. Thank you.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center