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.

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  • Martha

    I sit back and await the mass media coverage of this story, with reporters and opinion-column writers both saying “Hey, you know, the Catholic Church maybe isn’t as crazy nuts anti-science as when I first wrote on this topic, okay?”

    Yes – and the pigs will zoom by overhead, looping the loop.

  • L

    The Associated Press did have a brief about the poetry gaffe. It’s one of the articles that comes up when you click on the “other stories” link in your Google search.

    Of course, it’s so short that it suggests that the AP didn’t really see it as a big deal.

  • Fr David

    Thank you for highlighting this. I’m also intrigued with the way the “apology” was worded: viz “Christian and Catholic.”

  • Dave

    you probably didn’t hear about it.

    But I did, because I have a breaking-news WaPo subscription straight to my email.

    The press need not have moral regard for the embryo to see that iPS therapy is superior to embryonic because it needn’t be routed through an embryo, but directly use a skin cell. It may be that iPS research is harder but that’s just up-front. The moral dimension is evidently obscuring this perspective for the MSM.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, I saw and heard about it from several sources. I saw as much coverage for that as the just started embryonic stem cell treatment to heal spinal chord injuries so I wonder why you said it was invisible.

    And everyone I know of has avoided the gigantic ghost of the destruction that occurs anyway without the medical use. It’s more than a ghost, it’s an elephant in the room because the requirement to avoid that destruction is to forbid the use of medical techniques that cause such production in the first place. It’s time to see some coverage from those who are opposed to embryonic stem cells as to what they propose that will really solve the problem they see.

  • Chris A

    To the public, the embryonic stem cell debate is about “cures.” For the people doing the research, it’s not about the cures, but about doing path-breaking pure research on human embryonic development. You can do all kinds of practical medical research by using adult stem cells. But you can’t study human embryonic development without experimenting on human embryos, or at least you can’t do it as well and as effectively. But in public debate on science, pure research is not seen as a good apart from immediate practical spin-offs in the form of medical cures. So if you want to defend pure research (whether from budget cutters or from limitation imposed by ethics), you always have to defend it as leading to immediate medical cures. Sometimes this linkage is honest, other times (like this case) it really isn’t. Understand this, and you understand the debate and its strategic silences.

  • Bob Smietana


    Have you seen any of the stories that the NY Times has done on Shinya Yamanaka, one of the leading researchers on iPS cells.

    There was a great quote in a piece back from 2007:

    “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two and now a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”

  • Jeffrey

    There was actually significant coverage of this development in the mainstream press.

    Now, they didn’t neecssarily say it was a “game changer” unlike the guy quotes in the WaPo (who is a researcher working on similar work) or the conservative press (which relied on pro-life activists to label it significant). But it was covered.

  • J. Lahondere

    I know this isn’t journalism focused… But that poem was terrible. That is all.

  • Julia

    My niece has non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
    I was expecting to be donating T-cells as I did for a friend in the 1990s, but recently we all learned that the niece would need a bone marrow transplant.

    We were all reporting our blood types for matching purposes.
    Found out now that they will be using her own bone marrow cells and no matching will be necessary.

    Wow. I’ve never heard of that. Her own cells – no need for bone marrow matches or embryonic cells or adult cells.


  • Mollie


    Thanks for the links to blog posts and articles. Do you happen to know if it made any major news programs or magazine covers?

    Apparently your google-fu is a bit better than mine . . .

    Jerry wrote:

    I saw as much coverage for that as the just started embryonic stem cell treatment to heal spinal chord injuries

    Which sort of makes the point. That “just started embryonic stem cell treatment” was a widely circulated press release without corroboration and had some people saying that it was wrongly billed. Also, no word on whether the treatment was successful, of course.


    Yes, I think we looked at the 2007 and 2009 stories in the Times. I will look for links later (just got back from travel).

  • Jerry

    Mollie, the stories about embryonic stem cell treatment said that the treatment was just starting so you’re comment about success is way, way premature.

    Also, given how science works, whether or not some issues will be discovered with induced pluripotent stem cells. Just recently, a blood pressure drug I’m taking that was just made generic was the subject of a study saying that it increased the risk of cancer. So the same note about not assuming success applies. I recommend the wikipedia article that shows that research with induced pluripotent stem cells has been ongoing for years with issues overcome and issues to be overcome.