What’s derailing embryonic stem cell therapy?

Some of the topics we cover that generate the most interest are the ones that mix religion, politics and culture. You know, abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, religious liberty. These also tend to be the topics that trouble some journalists the most.

Back when I started at GetReligion many many moons ago, one of the most common errors we saw was the confusion of stem cell research that destroyed embryos with stem cell research that didn’t. You’d have reporters say that Catholics oppose stem cell research when they should have explained that Catholic teaching is only opposed to that stem cell research it considers unethical, such as that which destroys human embryos.

This was during the heady days when (embryonic) stem cell research was making covers of major magazines and it was common to hear that (embryonic) stem cell research would cure all that ails us. You’ll remember, I’m sure, Sen. John Edwards saying that a John Kerry presidency would mean that people in wheelchairs would walk again, thanks to their support of embryonic stem cell research. (And yes, I’m sorry for reminding everyone about John Edwards.)

Well, a funny thing happened in the last few years, or an interesting thing happened. It’s true that stem cell research has much promise. Never as much as was promised by some media and certain politicians, sure, but much promise. It’s also true that virtually all of that therapeutic success has been coming from stem cell research that is of the non-embryonic type, namely fetal or adult.

Hidden on business pages in recent days came a downright shocking announcement. Geron Corporation, the undisputed leader in stem cell therapies, announced it was leaving embryonic stem cell research altogether. In the middle of a trial, no less. (And just the day after this headline.) Here’s how the New York Times reported it:

The company conducting the world’s first clinical trial of a therapy using human embryonic stem cells said on Monday that it was halting that trial and leaving the stem cell business entirely.

The company, Geron, said that its move did not reflect a lack of promise for the controversial field. Rather, it said, with money scarce, it had decided to focus on its experimental cancer therapies, which are further along in development.

“I deeply believe in the promise of stem cells,” John A. Scarlett, the chief executive of Geron, said in an interview. “I don’t think that promise is in any way, shape or form changed by what we’re doing.”

Still, the move is expected to be widely seen as a setback for the field, because of Geron’s central role.

The story itself is fine and provides at least some context by noting that the immense ambition of this trial might have been its downfall. But man is it interesting that this is on the business page. Well, it should be there. But it’s kind of interesting that it’s only on the business page.

The chatter about this move is that, of course, if this trial were more promising, money would not be hard to come by at all. But, again, perhaps the company just made a bad move in shooting too high.

By and large the business pages tended to take Geron’s word about why it shut down. Here’s the Wall Street Journal‘s version, for instance. So did some health pages. Here’s CNN writing “the economy, not controversy” killed the trial and caused Geron to jump ship completely. Which is, of course, true, but why is the economy not better for this therapy if, in fact, it’s so promising?

The first skeptical story I read was on the health pages of ABC News. It led with Geron’s claim that this was just a cost consideration but went ahead and asked some observers for their thoughts:

Many experts say they’re not convinced that financial limits are only to blame.

“This company would not walk away from this trial in the absence of an unexpected complication or safety concern, if there was any evidence that it was working,” said Dr. Daniel Salomon, associate professor in the department of molecular and experimental medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. “The assumption has to be that they designed a study with a purposeful plan to complete it to a certain benchmark of efficacy and that they had the funds for that effort in hand.”

In 2009, the Obama administration lifted former president George W. Bush’s restrictions on funding for stem cell research, which expanded the financial limits of the field.

Geron’s trial on therapies for spinal cord injury became the first embryonic stem cell based research approved in the U.S.

“Without seeing the data, one cannot be certain that there was not a clinical reason for stopping the trial,” said Dr. Robertson Parkman, professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California.


The story has some problems and mentions pro-lifers without actually explaining their concerns or talking to any of them, but it seemed to at least begin the process of journalistic diligence. On that note, Rob Stein at the Washington Post didn’t write an article about the Geron drop out but he did have a pretty comprehensive post on the matter. It didn’t dig deep (it was a blog post!) but it was well rounded for such a short piece and even explained that some people have ethical concerns about destroying humans who are a few days old. It also described the disappointment felt by those who have put their hope into these therapies. I was hoping for more from Stein but the Post ran a couple Associated Press articles that were sticking closer to the “embryonic stem cell therapies will cure all that ails us” template from years ago than a more impartial explanation. That whole false hope hype just strikes me as one of the cruelest things the media can do for people who face serious illness or injury. Politicians are one thing, but we should be more dispassionate.

Bioethicist Wesley Smith, a critic of embryonic stem cell research, had some provocative questions for the media:

I am sorry, but this momentous decision deserves far more attention than a relatively short story in the business section. The media has been utterly fawning in its promotion of embryonic stem cell research for more than ten years, and still often reports that it is the best hope for regenerative treatments, when that is clearly no longer true. Indeed, the media has been so in the tank that it has often ignored far superior results from ethical approaches, as I have repeatedly detailed over the years.

That being so, Geron and the media have an obligation to explain the why of this story in some detail and without spin. Was it the recent European ruling banning the patenting of embryonic stem cell products (about which I wrote) a factor? Was its human trial a disappointment? If it is out of money, why aren’t venture capitalists more willing to invest more in the field if it is so promising? I am sure you all have questions of your own.

Like I said, the issuance of a terse, jargon filled statement and a folding of tents is unacceptable. Time for the media to stop being supine and dig into what actually happened here.

It is entirely possible that Geron, having already sunk many millions of dollars into its research and seeing that the product would take decades to come to market, just cut its losses. It’s also true that fetal and adult stem cell therapies — including for spinal cord injuries — are much more promising at this time.

This story could use a bit more digging. And the successes of the stem cell research without controversy should not be hidden from news consumers as this drama unfolds.

Photo of serious scientists via Shutterstock.

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  • Bob Smietana

    Embryonic stem cell research has always seemed a topic where was too much religion. It was always framed as an ethical issue or as part of the science-religion wars. Almost no one was asking, will it work?

  • nohype

    Since the press has mangled the reporting of this issue from its inception–failing, for instance, to differentiate embryonic-stem-cell research from non-embryonic stem cell research–why should anyone be surprised that its reports on the event are incomplete?

    Although the press and progressives depicted the controversy about embryonic-stem-cell research as a battle between religion and science, it was never that. It was always a battle over the morality of abortion. It is hard to claim the moral high ground when your cause is killing babies. Embryonic-stem-cell research was an attempt to justify abortion–those who opposed it were standing in the way of curing people, of helping people in need. If the research worked, the pro-abortion side could seize the moral high ground on the abortion issue. Now that the whole research program seems to have stalled, that attempt has failed. Most people do not like to advertise their failures, and the advocates of abortion, which includes much of the press, are not exceptions.

  • Dave

    It takes a bit too much construction to make a case that the press is failing to get religion in this story. Perhaps Geron has been spooked by religious opposition to embryonic stem cell work, and doesn’t want to admit it. But is that indicated by the facts, or is it a wish-driven projection from the outside?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    So, the Washington Post actually wrote:

    …a field offering hope of future medicines for conditions with inadequate or no current treatments… Embryonic stem cells can develop into any type of cell in the body. The hope is that one day they might be used to replace or repair damaged tissue from ailments such as heart disease, Parkinson’s and stroke.

    Do you really think that’s fairly summarized with the words “embryonic stem cell therapies will cure all that ails us”? Frankly, words like “false hope hype” strike me as just a bit shy of “impartial” or “dispassionate”, too…

  • Martha

    Ray, media coverage way back when the hype was being generated certainly incorporated, if not improved, upon statements such as this from a 2001 paper:

    “Although considerable progress in human transplantation medicine has been achieved in recent years, several major obstacles still restrict more widespread application of cellular transplantation in the routine treatment of these conditions. The chief obstacles that face this field are the need for massive doses of immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of the transplanted tissue and the scarcity of organs from human cadaver donors. In light of these obstacles, a human ES cell-based strategy could permit the generation of an unlimited supply of cells or tissue from an abundant, renewable, and readily accessible source. Moreover, by virtue of their permissiveness for stable genetic modification, ES cells could be engineered to escape or inhibit host immune responses.”

    Free organ transplants for all! Cures galore! Just around the corner! My agéd memory may betray me, but I faintly recall that this was how the hoopla went, and of course, those nasty bigoted religious types who objected just hated science and wanted everyone to suffer (several of the comments on this 2007 post over at my old friend P.Z. Myers’ blog).

    Groups such as this one evidently believe that any restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research threaten imminent cures:

    ““Embryonic stem cell research—the hope of millions of Americans—is under a legal cloud that might set back the field for decades.”

    The Stem Cell Action Coalition serves as an engine uniting the pro-cures community. We demand that our elected officials in all levels of government, federal and state, finally treat embryonic stem cell research as a national priority and enact laws to protect funding in order to ensure that cures will come sooner, rather than later. Take Action Now.”

    Whatever one’s moral feelings, embryonic stem-cell research from a scientific viewpoint is a fascinating area and valuable tool for understanding the mechanisms involved in organic life. However, it is still a pure research avenue that will take decades just for the spadework to be done. Unfortunately, to get funding, pure research that may not pay off for thirty or fifty years isn’t sexy enough, so understandably they had to hype it up with “Cures for whatever ails you just around the corner (small print terms and conditions may apply)”.

    The media picked up on the big headlines and didn’t get the small print stuff, and here we all are ten years or so later.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Martha –

    Ray, media coverage way back when the hype was being generated…

    The Washington Post article Mollie linked to wasn’t written ten years ago. It was written in the last couple days.

    I’m not even claiming that ‘breathless hype’ stories can’t be found. What I’m questioning is whether the Washington Post story actually was an example of that. If there are such stories out there, it seems to me Mollie picked an awfully weak example.

    How would you (or Mollie) rewrite the passages I quoted from the article, the ones that apparently raised Mollie’s ire?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I am no science research sleuth, but it has always struck me how the rejection problem has so often been ignored.
    Funds for research are limited. It seems a waste of money to pour virtually all your available funds into embryonic stem cell research (which is bound to have the double problem of rejection) while adult stem cell research (using the patient’s own cells) would not run into the Mt. Everest problem of rejection. Long ago some people were writing about this problem and lamenting the money starvation adult stem cell research was facing while the media was almost hysterically promoting embryonic cell research–the less promising research route.
    And from a religion point of view-didn’t I see an article about the Vatican getting together with some company or scientists to promote adult stem research.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Google Vatican stem cell research and you will get a long list of stories about the Vatican’s working with a small American company in this area. One of the articles was lamenting how the major mass media was ignoring the whole story. Apparently it doesn’t fit into the media’s narrative of religion being anti-science.
    There are plenty of scientists and others who want issues of morality to be left outside the laboratory door and let those inside do whatever they want. But didn’t we see that happen in Germany in the 1930′s?? And how well did that end???

  • sari

    Deacon,
    When dealing with genetic disorders, using an adult’s own stem cells is unlikely to provide a cure. If we are far from using stem cells from any source, we are even farther from modifying and then using genetic material. There’s a lot of science which receives little to no notice in the MSM, mainly because readership lacks the interest -and- the necessary background. Seriously.

    For those who are interested, I’d suggest subscribing to a publications such as “Science News”, a biweekly magazine which highlights major science news and directs the reader to the original, more detailed articles.

  • Daniel

    Please, newspapers, magazines, Web logs, TV shows and radio news, cover that embryonic stem cell research funding in California has been a boondoggle.

  • http://www.christineascheller.wordpress.com Christine A. Scheller

    Bob #1, I’ve been reporting on both the ethics and the science since 2005. Here’s a summary from last year:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-a-scheller/on-the-bridge-a-conversat_b_747091.html

    I’m stunned, but not entirely surprised by this news, given that I heard Geron’s own Oxford University researcher say in 2008 that the immune problem with hESC’s is insurmountable. If it’s about money, my sense is that too much has been invested already and the challenges remain.

  • Martha

    Ray, when I clicked on the link to the “Washington Post” blog post Mollie was talking about, what’s the first thing that hit me?

    A picture of a sad-faced young man in a wheelchair, captioned as follows:

    “T. J. Atchison wheels up a ramp outside his home in Chatom, Ala., April 12, 2011. Atchison, 21, who was paralyzed in a car crash in 2010, has identified himself as the volunteer who was treated by researchers with human embryonic stem cells.”

    If that wasn’t tugging at the heart-strings and setting up the human interest angle of “Oh, noes! This company decision means this poor young man will now not be able to walk again!”, I don’t know what is.

    Further down, we get that such treatment (for spinal cord injuries) is being tolerated well with no side-effects, but that’s a long way still from restoring the power of independent movement – which is not the impression the caption gives us (miracle cure just a few treatments away but now heartless company puts the kibosh on hopes).

  • Will

    What really grates on me is people who think that “anywayshapeorform” is one word. Fowler, thou shouldst be living at this hour.


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