Distinctions with a difference

michael-oprahOne of the more interesting stories regarding stem cell research is one that has been woefully under-reported. Even though scientists have been performing embryo-destructive stem cell research for a decade, there are no clinically available treatments that have resulted from the research. In the past two years, however, scientists have discovered ways of inducing pluripotent stem cells that many see as more promising. Scientists had already succeeded in transforming skin cells into stem cells with the properties of embryonic stem cells by using viral vectors. But there was concern that the viruses might prohibit therapeutic use. Last year, researchers figured out how to use viruses without letting the viruses get integrated. And this year, researchers figured out how to reprogram adult cells into pluripotent stem cells without using viruses at all. (Both of those linked Washington Post stories are by Rob Stein, who has covered the beat more thoroughly than many reporters at other news outlets.) Researchers are very excited since these stem cells can be patient specific and safe enough to use clinically. They're cheaper, easier to work with than embryonic stem cells and much easier to secure.

Because they're patient specific, they are less prone to immune rejection. For an equivalent embryonic stem cell situation, the embryos would have to be clones of the patient. While some might have no problem with human cloning and killing and the ethics and safety of producing eggs for cloning, using skin cells seems less challenging financially and ethically.

I don't know why the media are less interested in covering these induced pluripotent stem cell advances than they have been about covering embryonic stem celll research. Perhaps it's because the former can't be used to inflame the culture wars. But it's terribly interesting to note the difference.

All of that is prologue to this Denver Post piece "Stem cells' potential for 10 vexing illnesses." It's actually a report from Premium Health News Service, a division of Tribune Media Services. It feeds subscribers information from the Mayo Clinic and Harvard but also some more questionable outfits such as Psychology Today and New Scientist. I've been burned by New Scientist so many times that I think it might be safer to just read their articles and translate them so they say the opposite.

Anyway, the article begins by referring to President Barack Obama's "lifting of the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research." Of course, while Obama significantly changed the federal funding policy for embryonic stem cell research, there was no ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. In fact, President George Bush was the first president to fund embryonic stem cell research, which he did with limits. President Obama also has, through the National Institute of Health, proposed limits on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Obama's limits are much less stringent.

Excitement over the embryonic cells comes from their remarkable ability, as biological blank slates, to become virtually any of the body's cell types. Many observers believe the president's move will accelerate the hunt for cures for some of our most vexing diseases.

However, the benefits are largely hypothetical, given the infancy of the field, and are offset by some real obstacles: The risks of embryonic stem cells, as well as cells programmed to become like them, include the possibility they will actually cause cancers in people who receive them. Nonetheless, here's a look at 10 health problems that stem cells might someday cure -- or at least help treat:

Okay, it's nice to see the media acknowledge that there are cancer-causing problems with embryonic stem cells. But do researchers believe the same about the latest advances in induced pluripotent stem cells?

Before we proceed, let's look at what the Post says about Parkinson's Disease:

4. Parkinson's disease. Stem cells may also help those who suffer from Parkinson's, a neurodegenerative disorder that can cause tremors, stiffness, and other movement and speech problems. Studies show that embryonic stem cells can give rise to the dopamine-making neurons that Parkinson's patients lack. When transplanted into rodents with a Parkinson's- like disorder, those replacement brain cells improved the animals' motor function.

Last month a number of people pointed me to an Oprah Winfrey show that featured a doctor explaining to Oprah and Michael J. Fox that embryonic stem cells are very difficult to control and can become cancerous. Because of this, they do not show promise for curing Parkinson's Disease, which afflicts Fox. But the good news, he said, is that induced pluripotent stem cells show great promise for the same treatment.

"I think the stem cell debate is dead," he says on the show.

You can watch the 3-minute video here. Why Oprah Winfrey is breaking news that the Denver Post can't handle a month later, I do not know.

Let's look at what the Denver Post said about Alzheimer's:

5. Alzheimer's disease. Likewise, embryonic stem cells may come in handy against Alzheimer's disease, a progressive and deadly disorder that degrades and kills brain cells, leading to memory loss, cognitive decline and behavioral problems. Stem cells may give rise to new treatments or even, some say, a cure; other experts have expressed skepticism.

I've noted this article before, but here's what the Washington Post wrote about Alzheimer's back in 2004. The article is headlined "Stem Cells An Unlikely Therapy for Alzheimer's":

But given the lack of any serious suggestion that stem cells themselves have practical potential to treat Alzheimer's, the Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportions.

It is a distortion that some admit is not being aggressively corrected by scientists.

"To start with, people need a fairy tale," said Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Maybe that's unfair, but they need a story line that's relatively simple to understand."

To be fair, that article does say that cloning humans and taking their stem cells might overcome some of the problems -- but, as we know now, so would using induced pluripotent stem cells, which doesn't require cloning and destroying humans in the process. pelosi-book Anyway, the Denver Post article ignores the old news that embryonic stem cells are not promising for Alzheimer's, confuses which stem cells are prone to causing cancers, and obscures the promise of induced pluripotent stem cells by grouping them with embryonic stem cells. It's an interesting media strategy but one that doesn't serve an already under-informed public terribly well. If the media are going to continue the silly narrative of "science" over "ideology," "ethics" or "religion," could we at least expect some honest reporting on the topic?

Here's another example of a weak article on the topic -- "Pelosi rebuts critics of stem cell research" -- by Carla Marinucci, a political writer for the San Francisco Chronicle:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi forcefully responded to conservative critics of government funding for programs like stem cell research Friday, saying that under the Bush administration, "We've had a situation where it's faith or science - take your pick."

"We're saying science is an answer to our prayers," the San Francisco Democrat said.

First off, 'like' means similar to. I think the reporter means to say 'such as.' However, the article is really all about embryonic stem cell research so I think neither 'like' nor 'such as' fit. Another nit: sometimes stem cell is spelled as one word in the article, sometimes it is spelled as two.

Much more importantly, who are the conservative critics of stem cell research? Are there any conservative critics of general stem cell research? Does the reporter mean critics of embryonic-destructive stem cell research? Yes, yes she does. So why not say that? Headlines and ledes such as this used to be ubiquitous a few years ago, failing to make the distinction between stem cell research that destroys embryos and stem cell research that doesn't destroy embryos. But now that scientists have made all of these advances with induced pluripotent stem cells, the confusion is even more egregious and unfair. Thankfully we don't see too many examples of such shoddy headline and lede writing any more.

Anyway, the word 'science' appears 13 times in this article, eight of them before the first of two instances of 'embryonic.' The story is extremely one-sided. We don't hear from anyone arguing against Pelosi that it might be dangerous to demean rational and important ethical concerns as mere religiosity or that it might be unwise to sacrifice morality on the altar of science. There's nobody quoted who looks at previous examples of federal funding of science unbridled by ethical concerns (Tuskegee anyone?) being problematic. There's no mention that the previous administration actually spent hundreds of millions of dollars on embryonic stem cell research. And we don't hear from anyone pointing out the advances in adult stem cells.

Once you remove all the problems from the story, there isn't much left.

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