Got news? Quiet 'game-changer'

DETROIT - OCTOBER 4: An exhibit at the 2010 World Stem Cell Summit is seen at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center October 4, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. More than 1,200 scientists and researchers from around the world are expected to attend the summit that focuses on the advancement of embryonic stem cell research. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

There was a massive "game-changing" development in stem cell research last month, but you probably didn't hear about it. So what else is new? The short of it is that scientists figured out an improved method to efficiently produce safe alternatives to human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. It's been just a few short years since scientists figured out that they could pursue promising stem cell research without using, much less killing, human embryos.

Rob Stein, who covers this beat regularly at the Washington Post, had the goods. He explains that a team of researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute published a series of their experiments showing out an improved way of developing these induced pluripotent stem cells:

Scientists hope stem cells will lead to cures for diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injuries, heart attacks and many other ailments because they can turn into almost any tissue in the body, potentially providing an invaluable source of cells to replace those damaged by disease or injury. But the cells can be obtained only by destroying days-old embryos.

The cells produced by the Harvard team, known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, would avoid that ethical objection and could in some ways be superior to embryonic stem cells. For example, iPS cells could enable scientists to take an easily obtainable skin cell from any patient and use it to create perfectly matched cells, tissue and potentially even entire organs for transplants that would be immune to rejection. ...

"All I can say is 'wow' - this is a game changer," said Robert Lanza, a stem cell researcher at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass. "It would solve some of the most important problems in the field." ...

In 2006, researchers discovered that they could coax adult cells into a state that appeared identical to embryonic stem cells and then, just like embryonic stem cells, morph these iPS cells into various tissues. But the process involved inserting genes into cells using retroviruses, which raised the risk that the cells could cause cancer. Since then, scientists have been trying to develop safer methods. Several approaches using chemicals or other types of viruses have shown promise. But none has eliminated the safety concerns, and most have been slow and balky.

Until this most recent development, that is.

Stein's article ran in late September. Now check out this week's Christian Science Monitor story about how important federal funding of embryo-destroying stem cell research is:

"We all hope that someday [iPSCs] will be viable replacements for embryonic stem cells," says research professor Daniel Anderson, walking between his laboratories, which are scattered across several floors in interconnected buildings at MIT. "But it's not today."

For example: The viruses used to reprogram adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells make them unsafe, so far, for many applications.

I think it might be a mistake to equate potential risk with an actual lack of safety, but it doesn't matter either way. The story completely misses this "game-changing" development all the way across town. Part of the problem could be that advances -- or even discussion of advances -- in embryonic stem cell research usually get major play in the media while those that don't involve destroying human embryos do not.

In fact, when I went to look for stories on the iPS development, they were almost all in conservative, Catholic, pro-life or Baptist media.

The media seem more interested in what will happen with embryonic stem cell research if federal funding is banned. The New York Times also ran a story recently:

Perhaps more than any other field of science, the study of embryonic stem cells has been subject to ethical objections and shaped by political opinion. But only a year after the Obama administration lifted some of the limits imposed by President George W. Bush, a lawsuit challenging the use of public money for the research and a conservative shift in Congress could leave the field more sharply restricted than it has been since its inception a decade ago. At stake are about 1,300 jobs, as well as grants from the National Institutes of Health that this year total more than $200 million and support more than 200 projects.

While this is true, as Wesley Smith notes, it neglects to mention the $2 billion in private and state funding the field has received. "Indeed, in California, the CIRM is permitted-if it wishes-to fund $300 million a year in ESCR experiments. Surely that is relevant to a story on how the sector would be impacted if the Lamberth decision is ultimately upheld."

The story had other problems, including ignorance about legislation and a complete failure to mention iPS stem cells, much less the recent developments with same.

Anyway, the CIRM mentioned above is the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a state agency with billions of dollars in funding for embryonic stem cell research. Because, you know, California is flush with cash or something. Check out this poem that the state agency awarded a prize for:

Stem C. This is my body which is given for you. But I am not great. I have neither wealth, nor fame, nor grace. I cannot comfort with words, nor inspire to march. I am small and simple, so leave me this. Let me heal you. This is my body which is given for you. Take this in remembrance of me.

The state agency apologized:

CIRM recently announced two winners of the second annual poetry contest, one of which contained some religious language that is identical to liturgical language used in the context of Christian and Catholic sacraments. The language introduces a religious element that we now realize was offensive to some people.

But this gaffe was only covered in pro-life and industry news, near as I can tell. It's just so interesting to me what gets covered and what doesn't these days.

Please respect our Commenting Policy