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The Great Stem Cell Error

Feeble if not deceptive science feeds on man's craving for immortality.

By 11.19.06

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This column appears in the November issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

The era of stem cells, an advocacy campaign from the start, began eight years ago. On November 6, 1998, articles reporting the isolation of embryonic cells appeared in Science, and, not coincidentally, on the front page of the New York Times. The lengthy Times article was written by Nicholas Wade, a tireless champion of stem cells and their medical promise. More articles by him appeared in the next few days, some reporting that stem cells are immortal. For a while it seemed possible that defective tissue might eventually be replaced by immortal tissue, so that death itself might become a thing of the past.

In his article "Immortality, of a Sort, Beckons to Biologists," prominently featured in the paper's "Science" section that November 17, Wade wrote that if stem cells could be "guided down" the right paths, they could then be "immortalized" by the addition of a particular gene. The tissues they formed "would then be permanently youthful." William A. Hazeltine of Human Genome Sciences foresaw old and worn out tissue being replaced with immortalized stem cells -- "a clearly articulated vision of human immortality that will be introduced slowly over the next 50 years."

Even at the time, such claims seemed one step removed from the fraudulent. Since then the claim that the activation of a gene can release a substance -- telomerase -- that can immortalize a cell has been abandoned. The only immortal cells we know of are cancer cells. Claims of immortality are no longer heard, but the stock price of Geron Corporation, the company that had funded early stem-cell research, soon soared, peaking above $69 a share in 2000. (It has since fallen to a tenth of that value.) Geron was founded by Michael D. West -- a "visionary," in Nicholas Wade's estimation -- whose initial purpose in founding the company was to research aging and if possible do something about it.

The early reporting on stem cells emphasized the immortality claim. In its first news report on the human stem-cell claims, for example, Science magazine wrote that James Thomson and his team at the University of Wisconsin "report in this issue of Science that they have isolated stem cells from human embryos and coaxed them to grow in five 'immortal' cell lines." That was an important reason why stem cells attracted so much attention. It wasn't just diabetics and Parkinson's patients who stood to benefit, but everyone who wanted to stay young.

Just about every news story ever written on stem cells has been divided into two parts. On the one hand, the bright medical promise shines before us. Stem cells have the "potential" to turn into almost any of the more specialized cells. This in turn will provide tissue engineers with an endless supply of spare parts. Whether immortal or not, they will be able to replace defective cells. But then comes the dark side. Scientists will have to contend with the moralists and naysayers who care not a whit for progress and the quality of life. On the day after its initial story the Times published an editorial with a headline that set the trend: "A Ban on Cells That Could Heal."

In 1995, Congress had banned the federal financing of research on cells derived from embryos. That ban was later lifted, but in August 2001 President Bush decreed that the use of federal funds for such research would be restricted to those stem-cell lines already in existence. Briefly applauded for allowing the research to continue, Bush soon became the villain. How could science possibly progress without federal money? The conflict between hopeful science and reactionary morality has remained the storyline of choice ever since.

California voters bought the argument that taxpayers' money can prevail over all scientific challenges. In 2004, they approved a $3 billion ballot initiative, permitting stem-cell scientists in the state to circumvent federal restrictions. Gov. Schwarzenegger collaborated, as he has more recently with a politically correct anti-global warming measure that threatens to cost the state a lot more than $3 billion.

THE WELL-ADVERTISED CONFLICT between progressive science and backward ethics has had the important effect of distracting attention from the feebleness and sometimes the actual deceptiveness of the scientific claims made on behalf of embryonic stem cells.

The principal claim is that they can have the potential to develop into any cell in the body. Here is how John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins put it in the first sentence of his article in the November 6, 1998 issue of Science. "Pluripotential stem cells, present in the early stages of embryo development, can generate all of the cell types in a fetus and in the adult and are capable of self-renewal."

The key word here is "can." He does not say "have been shown to." From the beginning, the claim made on behalf of embryonic stem cells simply expands upon the definition of stem cells. Gearhart's sentence above could be rewritten: "Stem cells that can generate all of the cell types in a fetus can generate all of the cell types in a fetus...."

We know that a fertilized egg has the potential to develop into all the body's cell types because if that development is undisturbed in the womb, it will in fact develop into a full body with all its cell types. That is all that is being claimed. It is deceptive because a definitional truth masquerades as an empirical claim. It looks as though something has been demonstrated in the lab, when it is simply inherent in a definition.

Scott King, who runs a small biotech company in San Francisco, keeps a close eye on stem cells because he is himself a type 1 (juvenile) diabetic and therefore has a personal stake in the outcome of this research. He is one of the very few people to have pointed out the tautological nature of the major claim made on behalf of stem cells. They are simply cells that have the potential to differentiate into other types of cells, he says. Go back to an early enough stage of the embryo, and it is both true and uncontroversial to say that the cells of that embryo are "pluripotent." They certainly can turn into most other cell types, because they do so in fact when the embryo grows normally.

The definitional problem with stem cells, and the circularity of the claims made on their behalf, has received almost no attention in the literature. Wade did point out in his 1998 Times article that the stem cells obtained from embryos "do not seem definably different from the handful of primordial cells from which an entire individual is created." And in 2004, two stem-cell experts wrote in the Scientific American that stem cells "cannot be distinguished by appearance. They are defined by their behavior." But the general public is unaware of the problem.

The second, and crucial, stem-cell claim is that, having extracted these cells from the early-stage embryo, scientists can then coax, nudge, or direct them into becoming whatever specialized cells are desired: in the case of diabetics, insulin-making islet cells, for example. But this has turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Eight years of tinkering and coaxing have not yet resulted in the generation of any human islet cells from stem cells, Scott King says.

Ronald McKay, a stem-cell researcher at the National Institutes of Health, who rashly said a few years ago that stem cells could be made to "jump through hoops," did claim to have generated insulin- producing cells from embryonic mouse cells. That became a page-one story for the New York Times in 2001. It "seems to be the first time that a miniature organ has been coaxed to form from embryonic stem cells," Nicholas Wade wrote. But within a year Douglas Melton of Harvard had shown that the claim was wrong. In doing their experiments, McKay and others had used insulin as a growth factor, and concluded that the insulin they detected had come from newly generated islet cells. In fact it had been there all along.

There followed in 2005 the fraudulent claims of the South Korean researcher Wu Suk Hwang, who claimed that he had created stem cells from cloned embryos. In this technique, a prospective patient's cell is put into an egg from which the nucleus has been removed. By this method, Hwang claimed, he had made stem-cell lines in one out of every twelve tries. The advantage of this method is that the resulting cells would match the DNA of the patient, and this (perhaps) would mean that the resulting differentiated cells, if they were ever obtained, would not be recognized and rejected by the patient's immune system. But the results were all faked anyway. That the head of an expensively equipped, government-supported lab would resort to such desperate measures shows how difficult genetic engineering has turned out to be.

IN SHORT, YES, STEM CELLS do have the potential to turn into more specialized cells (that is what we mean by a stem cell). But after eight years of trial and error, scientists have not yet shown that they know how to nudge or coax or direct any given cell in a desired direction -- for example, into the dopamine producing cells that are needed to combat Parkinson's disease.

In extenuation, it is said that not only has U.S. research been restricted, but that it is too early to expect results. Perhaps so. But around the world, thousands of scientists are working full time on this problem. Stem-cell research with full government cooperation is underway in at least seven countries: Britain, Israel, Singapore, and China among them. In the U.S., privately funded research has expanded rapidly. Harvard University has embarked on such a project, as have other institutions, for whom the U.S. restrictions have created a fund-raising opportunity.

Before too long, the general public will begin to suspect that something is amiss, and here is what I believe it is.

How do the cells of the normally growing fetus "know" how to develop into the specialized cells of a functioning body? For decades this has been the great unanswered question of embryology. It remains unanswered to this day. Stem-cell scientists would have done us all a favor by admitting this eight years ago. But modern scientists hate to admit to ignorance in their own field because it seems so unprofessional.

One answer, however, is that cells "know" what to do, and what to become, by coming into contact with adjacent cells. In fact, the body should be thought of as a society of cells that "learn" from one another. It is like a highly successful school, in which billions of pupils learn from each other how to specialize into hundreds of different trades. The stem-cell scientist is the optimist who believes he can isolate a single infant from this school and, by private tutoring and coaxing, propel it along a particular path of specialization. This, it seems to me, is the great error underlying the therapeutic theory of stem cells. Scientists don't know how the body's "school" works, and yet they imagine they can replicate its results in the isolation of the lab. To date, the only realistic method at their disposal has been trial and error.

Notice that this precisely reverses the great "engineering" error of the 20th century. "Social engineers" believed that nature was malleable and that education could reshape it. Human nature turned out to be hard to manipulate, however, and the great socialist experiment failed for that reason. Today's genetic engineers believe the opposite. Nature -- the genome -- is everything and each cell is centrally directed by some genetic program that we don't understand yet. In the simplified model that biologists have worked with, most things worth knowing about the cell are located in the nucleus -- in the DNA. Francis Crick did us no favor in claiming that in explaining DNA, he was explaining life. That was hubris, pure and simple. Life is far more complicated than DNA

The idea that the cells of the growing body "learn" by coming into contact with one another is something that scientists would prefer not to think about. It means that understanding the cell will turn out to be a hundred times more difficult than it already is. Another consequence is that the stem-cell dream might have to be postponed indefinitely. A recent New York Times article, headlined "Some Scientists See Shift in Stem Cell Hopes," hinted at this. Many "no longer see cell therapy as the first goal of the research," but envisage "a longer-term program," Nicholas Wade wrote. He added that "work since 2001 has produced no significant advance."

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).