Monday, August 6, 2007

Stem Cells: Facts and Media Misrepresentation

The words “Stem Cells” are probably the second most misused term in the current media lexicon, exceeded only by “Evolution”. The word is commonly misused in four ways simultaneously. Not an easy task but when the media is committed to advancing an agenda regardless of the facts, no amount of semantic misuse limits their imagination.

Please allow me to explain. As you have no doubt noticed during the last decade the media has been full of stories critical of those “opposed to stem cell research”. Such people are usually depicted as ignorant, pro-life, Luddites, opposed to scientific progress. Their mindless opposition, according to the media, is resulting in masses of suffering victims who would otherwise be cured if only these backward Christian, Conservatives would end their resistance to scientific progress.

What is the truth? Here are some facts.

A stem cell is a cell that has the ability to differentiate itself into different types of cells. A stem cell can turn into a liver, kidney, brain, hair, skin, bone or any other type of cell. Consequently it is believed that stem cells hold great promises for repairing damaged or diseased tissue. Imagine how wonderful it would be if a victim of liver cancer could be given an injection of stem cells that would go into the body and regenerate a new liver.

There are two main categories of stem cells: Embryonic Stem Cells and Adult Stem Cells. Embryonic stem cells are found in the placenta, placental blood and in embryos. Adult Stem Cells are found in other tissue mainly bone marrow, muscle and the brain. Stem cells are usually obtained from organ donors, fertility clinics and volunteers.

If you have been following the reporting on the subject you may be under the impression that stem cell research in the United States is currently not quite legal but some scientists, brave enough to defy the “zealots” on the Christian right have persisted in the face of persecution nonetheless.

Here are some facts. To begin with, there are no legal barriers to stem cell research carried out within HHS guidelines, absolutely none – none as in zero – despite the media misrepresentation. There are no limits on funding stem cell research with one exception and it is this one exception that the media is using as the source of its disinformation campaign. This one exception is using federal funds to harvest new lines of embryonic stem cells taken from human fetuses. This is the one and only exception. This one exception has come as the result of pro-life groups’ opposition to destroying more human embryos in order to extract their stem cells.

Here are a few other facts the media regularly fails to mention. If you want to harvest new lines of human embryonic stem cells there is absolutely nothing stopping you from doing it, as long as the funds used are not federal funds. So any foreign country, any university, any private company, any state, local government or private individual is completely free to do such research as long as they pay for it. As a matter of fact, several states including California have made funds available for this purpose.

Right now federal funds can be used to do research on all lines of adult human stem cells and all animal stem cells. Additionally in the United States there are currently over sixty lines of existing human embryonic stem cells available for research plus foreign line and privately owned lines for which federal funds can be used. On top of this, to show how truly bogus this entire issue is, new lines of Human Embryonic Stem Cells can be harvested from the placenta and placental blood of new births, making it completely unnecessary to use human embryos as a source for new lines of embryonic stem cells.

However, despite these facts, little money is going into establishing new lines of human embryonic stem cells. The reason for this is simple economics. Investors do not want to throw money away. It was widely believe on theoretical grounds that embryonic stem cells, being more plastic then adult cells, would be more likely to produce viable therapies. However so far this has not proven to be the case as there are currently 60 therapeutic uses of adult stem cells and 0 therapeutic uses of embryonic stem cells. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but seem to be related to genetic level complexities.

One of the reasons for the big push for federal funding of new lines from human fetal tissue seems to be to get funding for projects that would not be funded on economic or scientific grounds. This is being done by portraying denied federal funding as martyrs of “pro-life loonies” rather than people who are trying to pursue, what may very well be, a scientific blind alley.

Why the media distortions?

It is no secret that the media has an extremely strong liberal bias. They want to get their candidates elected and advance their ideological agenda and they are succeeding in this area. Polls have shown that their misrepresentation of this issue has created a very negative impression in the minds of many. The pro-life community is frequently believed to be indifferent to the suffering of disease victims. Additionally the media has succeeded to a large degree in portraying anyone who is concerned about the “slippery slope" of this type of research for any reason as “anti-science.”

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