Stem Cell Advance 'Surprises' the NY Times and Old Media

June 10th, 2007 11:37 AM

Also: See this related NewsBusters post from Wednesday by Ken Shepherd.

Wednesday, reporter Nicholas Wade of the New York Times covered an important development in stem-cell research, opening with the following (bold is mine; link probably requires registration; HT Instapundit):

Biologists Make Skin Cells Work Like Stem Cells

In a surprising advance that could sidestep the ethical debates surrounding stem cell biology, researchers have come much closer to a major goal of regenerative medicine, the conversion of a patient’s cells into specialized tissues that might replace those lost to disease.

The advance is an easy-to-use technique for reprogramming a skin cell of a mouse back to the embryonic state. Embryonic cells can be induced in the laboratory to develop into many of the body’s major tissues.

While at one level you can't help but marvel at the amazing things scientific research can accomplish, Wade's "surprise" appears to be that what has usually been called "adult stem-cell research" is making progress in achieving "pluripotency," which Wade describes as "ability to morph into many different tissues" (dictionary definition of "pluripotent" is here). Pluripotency is a characteristic embryonic stem-cell researchers have often claimed as their sole province.

(Because of work done with stem cells that are neither adult nor embryonic, it seems more appropriate to refer to "embryonic" and "non-embryonic" stem-cell research. I personally prefer to refer to "non-embryonic" research as "life-safe stem-cell research.")

Wade is only "surprised" because publications like his own New York Times and other Old Media outlets have been downplaying achievements in life-safe non-embryonic stem-cell research for years.

Just a few of the many examples of progress in identifying and/or achieving pluripotency with non-embryonic stem cells that have received little or no Old Media notice in the past year would include the following:

  • January 2007 (AP via Fox News; BizzyBlog; original CNN link cited at BizzyBlog was removed by CNN) -- "Researchers at Wake Forest University and Harvard University reported the stem cells they drew from amniotic fluid donated by pregnant women hold much the same promise as embryonic stem cells. They reported they were able to extract the stem cells without harm to mother or fetus and turn their discovery into several different tissue cell types, including brain, liver and bone."
  • December 2006 (Life News; BizzyBlog) -- "Epidermal neural crest stem cells are found in the bulge of hair follicles and have characteristics that combine some advantages of embryonic and adult stem cells, according to lead researcher, Maya Sieber-Blum, Ph.D."
  • September 2006 (Life News; BizzyBlog) -- "At a American Chemical Society this week, teams of stem cell researchers told participants that they can get more out of adult stem cells than previously thought. The scientists said that adult stem cells can become any cell in the body with a little bit of coaxing."

Meanwhile, Old Media has often trumpeted claims like those made by Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) last year as meaningful and/or ethical. In Advance Cell's case, its claim that it had created a new method of obtaining embryonic stem cells without taking human life was shown to be false. Wesley Smith, in the course of debunking Advance Cell's claims at the time in the Weekly Standard, also chronicled that company's sordid history of gross exaggerations and flat-out falsehoods -- history that might normally, but in this case did not, cause Old Media business reporters to be highly skeptical about current claims.

The mounting evidence that life-safe non-embryonic research can achieve the same or better pluripotent results seems to have done nothing to slow the embryonic funding freight train -- or to make Old Media question why it continues its near-slavish adherence to buzz phrases like "the Bush Administration's ban" relating to embryonic research. The Administration has never "banned" embryonic research -- it only opposes federally funding it. Often, Old Media references to the "ban" often lazily fail, as noted by The Anchoress last year, to even include the word "embryonic," giving readers the erroneous impression that the Administration opposes funding of all stem-cell research.

Despite the non-embryonic research progress, it is becoming ever clearer that many states, and the current majority in Congress, remain starry-eyed over embryonic research, and are moving non-embryonic research behind it on the priority list. Why?

Michael Fumento, who has followed events in this area for several years, got to the heart of the ongoing funding issue with this question in February:

Given the growing number of state initiatives that fund embryonic stem cell, but not non-embryonic stem cell, research and given that overall National Institutes of Health funding increases are unlikely anytime soon, is it truly moral to take away funds from a technology that's been saving lives for half a century in favor of another technology that promises nothing but "promise"?

Cross-posted at