<<With apologies to the New York Times.>>
I know I’m really behind in my reading, but I ran across a item of interest in the November 2008 issue of Scientific American that I wanted to share. In the “In Brief” sidebar of their News Scan section, there was a short item on page 36. It mentions a new successful treatment in mice for strokes. What they don’t tell you is actually much more interesting.
I haven’t been able to locate the original reference to the specific study they mention, so I don’t know precisely what type of stem cells the researchers were using in that study: embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). However, as far back as 2004, researchers were already treating strokes in research animals using adult stem cells, one of the types of stem cells that does not require the destruction of a human embryo.
In fact, successful treatment for stroke, and other debilitating conditions, on research animals has continued and still continues today. In 2006, it was reported that stem cells from human bone marrow (adult stem cells) were successful in helping research animals recover from stroke. In the same article, it was reported that the researchers also studied stem cells from rodent bone marrow (again, adult stem cells) on research animals with a condition comparable to cerebral palsy in humans. The headline for the article only notes that stem cells were responsible for the success. It’s only when you move past the headline and read the whole article that you discover that it was bone marrow stem cells from humans and rodents. On a positive note, the researchers did explain that they were not using stem cells from embryos and fetuses, thus avoiding the ethical and political issues.
In fact, a new successful treatment for stroke in humans using adult stem cells was reported in 2008. This treatment involves a hemorrhagic stroke, where a blood vessel bursts and there is bleeding in the brain. Once again, the headline shouts out that stem cells were successful in treating a stroke. It isn’t until you read the article that you realize the stem cells were taken from bone marrow thus they were not embryonic stem cells.
I have a confession to make here. I don’t always read the articles. Yep, it’s true, I often skim the headlines to find out what’s going on and I skip the actual articles. Of course, this is only true for topics that don’t really interest me; for example, I couldn’t care less what the Washington Capitals are up to because I love the NY Islanders. But I imagine that I’m your average middle-aged American, so if I don’t always get past the headlines, it’s safe to say a lot of other people are only reading the headlines, and not getting into the meat of the articles.
Therein lies the problem with reports on stem cells. The headlines hardly ever differentiate the difference between the types of stem cells. The Washington Post’s articles make it clear that when you talk about stem cells, you talk about them as a group rather than specifying what type you are discussing. What the Post article was lacking in this particular article was an explanation that non-destructive forms of stem cell research were already funded by the federal government. Now, with President Obama’s lifting of the presidential ban on funding embryonic stem cell research, federal funding will shift from successful adult stem cell research and iPS cell research to embryonic stem cells research, a form a destructive research with limited success in research animals and (to-date) no success in humans.
The successful treatments on humans with adult stem cells continues to be achieved and noted in the scientific community. The April 2009 issue of Nature Reviews Neurology highlights the results of study on human patients with multiple sclerosis. In this study, not only were the patients’ cases of MS stopped from progressing and there was a 100 percent survivability rate, there was also evidence in some patients of a reversal of some of the neurological damage that occurred prior to treatment. And for those who want to understand how a degenerative genetic disease progresses, this issue also reports on researchers that are using iPS cells to study the pathology of spinal muscular atrophy.
Currently, there are 73 diseases and disabilities treatable using human adult stem cells. So you have to wonder, why doesn’t the popular media print this information? Why is there such a dearth of reports on the success of adult stem cell research or iPS cell research? Why have most media outlets decided that this news isn’t fit to print or if printed, it is hidden or disguised? And why do the media and the proponents of embryonic stem cell research continue to give patients and their families false hope with the promise of treatments and cures that are not borne out by the research?
The truth is, there is a mainstream media bias and when we read new items and articles, we need to always look deeper than just the headlines in order to find the facts.