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Embryonic Stem Cells Haven’t Cured Anyone, So Where’s the Apology?

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Michael Cook - published on 06/05/13

The sputtering end to the greatest bioethics battle of the 21st century

Let’s wind the clock back to 2003. In January wheelchair-bound quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve visited Australia to promote the legalisation of “therapeutic cloning”. This was absolutely necessary, he said, or patients would die needlessly. Scepticism about the potential of embryonic stem cells was utterly unwarranted. "That’s a myth,” he told his Australian audience. “That’s not true. Don’t let anyone tell you it is a pipedream."

In July that year the New England Journal of Medicine, the world’s leading medical journal, published a review article about the “promise of universal healing” in embryonic stem cells. “The Promethean prospect of eternal regeneration awaits us, while time’s vulture looks on,” the hyperventilating author wrote.

In short, people were excited. So excited, in fact, that in 2005 Australia passed legislation enabling “therapeutic cloning” for research purposes.

It’s hard to recapture the intensity of that debate, in Australia and elsewhere. The cause was urgent. “We have lost so much time already, and I just really can’t bear to lose any more,” said former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Scientists became political activists.  They lobbied politicians and insisted that therapeutic cloning would lead to cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. "I have never seen in my career a biological tool as powerful as the stem cells. It addresses every single human disease," said Hans Keirstead, of the University of California, Irvine.

Dissenters contended that adult stem cells already offered ethical avenues to cures and that embryonic stem cells would never work. Embryos were human beings and that it was moral madness to treat human life as a research tool. Women would be victims, too, as therapeutic cloning would require huge stocks of eggs. And besides, for a number of reasons, it just would not work.

The stakes were immense and the dissenters lost. Ethics had to take a back seat to science. Bioethicist Ruth Faden and stem cell scientist John Gearhart, both leaders in their field, spoke for many: “We believe that the obligation to relieve human suffering binds us all and justifies the instrumental use of early embryonic life.”

But the cures never came.

In the past ten years the single most memorable event in embryonic stem cell research has been setting a world record for scientific fraud. In 2004 and 2005 Science published two papers by Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean scientist. He claimed that he had successfully isolated human embryonic stem cells. Korea printed stamps in his honour and he was feted as an international celebrity. But he was a charlatan, his results were bogus and he had obtained human eggs unethically.

Press releases continued to gush from stem cell institutes, but they were always about promising developments rather than proven cures. In 2011, after many false starts and a year after launching a human trial for spinal cord injuries to cure people like Christopher Reeve, the California-based biotechnology firm Geron pulled the plug on all of its embryonic stem cell research to focus on cancer drugs. It had to: it was going broke.

The reason why stem cell research with embryos has faded from the headlines is that it has been superseded by “induced pluripotent stem cells”. In 2007 Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka showed that it was possible to create stem cell lines from skin cells without destroying embryos. Almost immediately leading stem cell scientists abandoned embryonic stem cell research. Yamanaka – a man who had spurned embryonic stem cell research as unethical — won the Nobel Prize in Medicine last year.

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