What's derailing embryonic stem cell therapy?

Some of the topics we cover that generate the most interest are the ones that mix religion, politics and culture. You know, abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, religious liberty. These also tend to be the topics that trouble some journalists the most. Back when I started at GetReligion many many moons ago, one of the most common errors we saw was the confusion of stem cell research that destroyed embryos with stem cell research that didn't. You'd have reporters say that Catholics oppose stem cell research when they should have explained that Catholic teaching is only opposed to that stem cell research it considers unethical, such as that which destroys human embryos.

This was during the heady days when (embryonic) stem cell research was making covers of major magazines and it was common to hear that (embryonic) stem cell research would cure all that ails us. You'll remember, I'm sure, Sen. John Edwards saying that a John Kerry presidency would mean that people in wheelchairs would walk again, thanks to their support of embryonic stem cell research. (And yes, I'm sorry for reminding everyone about John Edwards.)

Well, a funny thing happened in the last few years, or an interesting thing happened. It's true that stem cell research has much promise. Never as much as was promised by some media and certain politicians, sure, but much promise. It's also true that virtually all of that therapeutic success has been coming from stem cell research that is of the non-embryonic type, namely fetal or adult.

Hidden on business pages in recent days came a downright shocking announcement. Geron Corporation, the undisputed leader in stem cell therapies, announced it was leaving embryonic stem cell research altogether. In the middle of a trial, no less. (And just the day after this headline.) Here's how the New York Times reported it:

The company conducting the world’s first clinical trial of a therapy using human embryonic stem cells said on Monday that it was halting that trial and leaving the stem cell business entirely.

The company, Geron, said that its move did not reflect a lack of promise for the controversial field. Rather, it said, with money scarce, it had decided to focus on its experimental cancer therapies, which are further along in development.

“I deeply believe in the promise of stem cells,” John A. Scarlett, the chief executive of Geron, said in an interview. “I don’t think that promise is in any way, shape or form changed by what we’re doing.”

Still, the move is expected to be widely seen as a setback for the field, because of Geron’s central role.

The story itself is fine and provides at least some context by noting that the immense ambition of this trial might have been its downfall. But man is it interesting that this is on the business page. Well, it should be there. But it's kind of interesting that it's only on the business page.

The chatter about this move is that, of course, if this trial were more promising, money would not be hard to come by at all. But, again, perhaps the company just made a bad move in shooting too high.

By and large the business pages tended to take Geron's word about why it shut down. Here's the Wall Street Journal's version, for instance. So did some health pages. Here's CNN writing "the economy, not controversy" killed the trial and caused Geron to jump ship completely. Which is, of course, true, but why is the economy not better for this therapy if, in fact, it's so promising?

The first skeptical story I read was on the health pages of ABC News. It led with Geron's claim that this was just a cost consideration but went ahead and asked some observers for their thoughts:

Many experts say they're not convinced that financial limits are only to blame.

"This company would not walk away from this trial in the absence of an unexpected complication or safety concern, if there was any evidence that it was working," said Dr. Daniel Salomon, associate professor in the department of molecular and experimental medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. "The assumption has to be that they designed a study with a purposeful plan to complete it to a certain benchmark of efficacy and that they had the funds for that effort in hand."

In 2009, the Obama administration lifted former president George W. Bush's restrictions on funding for stem cell research, which expanded the financial limits of the field.

Geron's trial on therapies for spinal cord injury became the first embryonic stem cell based research approved in the U.S.

"Without seeing the data, one cannot be certain that there was not a clinical reason for stopping the trial," said Dr. Robertson Parkman, professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California.

The story has some problems and mentions pro-lifers without actually explaining their concerns or talking to any of them, but it seemed to at least begin the process of journalistic diligence. On that note, Rob Stein at the Washington Post didn't write an article about the Geron drop out but he did have a pretty comprehensive post on the matter. It didn't dig deep (it was a blog post!) but it was well rounded for such a short piece and even explained that some people have ethical concerns about destroying humans who are a few days old. It also described the disappointment felt by those who have put their hope into these therapies. I was hoping for more from Stein but the Post ran a couple Associated Press articles that were sticking closer to the "embryonic stem cell therapies will cure all that ails us" template from years ago than a more impartial explanation. That whole false hope hype just strikes me as one of the cruelest things the media can do for people who face serious illness or injury. Politicians are one thing, but we should be more dispassionate.

Bioethicist Wesley Smith, a critic of embryonic stem cell research, had some provocative questions for the media:

I am sorry, but this momentous decision deserves far more attention than a relatively short story in the business section. The media has been utterly fawning in its promotion of embryonic stem cell research for more than ten years, and still often reports that it is the best hope for regenerative treatments, when that is clearly no longer true. Indeed, the media has been so in the tank that it has often ignored far superior results from ethical approaches, as I have repeatedly detailed over the years.

That being so, Geron and the media have an obligation to explain the why of this story in some detail and without spin. Was it the recent European ruling banning the patenting of embryonic stem cell products (about which I wrote) a factor? Was its human trial a disappointment? If it is out of money, why aren’t venture capitalists more willing to invest more in the field if it is so promising? I am sure you all have questions of your own.

Like I said, the issuance of a terse, jargon filled statement and a folding of tents is unacceptable. Time for the media to stop being supine and dig into what actually happened here.

It is entirely possible that Geron, having already sunk many millions of dollars into its research and seeing that the product would take decades to come to market, just cut its losses. It's also true that fetal and adult stem cell therapies -- including for spinal cord injuries -- are much more promising at this time.

This story could use a bit more digging. And the successes of the stem cell research without controversy should not be hidden from news consumers as this drama unfolds.

Photo of serious scientists via Shutterstock.

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