Special Report

Cures That Don’t Kill

Another breakthrough strengthens the case for concentrating on adult stem cell therapy, but the American media aren’t listening.

By 12.1.04

A critical point that is too often missed in the debate over stem cell therapies in the United States is that so-called adult stem cells (ASCs) have shown great success in doing the very things that advocates of embryonic stem cell (ESC) harvesting hope to achieve with ESCs.

That is because the American press tends not to tell of these successes, as a recent story from South Korea shows.

The term adult stem cells is in fact a misnomer because one of the best sources of these cells is umbilical cord blood. Ironically, stem cells from that source have in fact worked an astonishing miracle in curing a South Korean woman who suffered from a spinal problem similar to the type that befell the late Christopher Reeve, former Superman actor and strenuous advocate for research into the use of embryonic stem cells.

As an Agence France-Presse (AFP) syndicated story on Yahoo! News reported this past Sunday, "A South Korean woman paralyzed for 20 years is walking again after scientists say they repaired her damaged spine using stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood."

The woman had been bedridden for two years after injuring her spinal cord in an accident.

Last week she walked for the first time since the accident, with the aid of a walker, at a press conference announcing the success of the treatment. The research team that oversaw her therapy said, according to the AFP story, that this was "the world's first published case in which a patient with spinal cord injuries had been successfully treated with stem cells from umbilical cord blood." Researchers have not had success in using embryonic stem cells in curing spinal injuries in human subjects.

While acknowledging that more research and scientific verification are necessary, the team saw the case as a significant breakthrough in the treatment of spinal cord injuries. A member of the research team said that they were surprised at the patient's swift improvement in response to the therapy. The patient described the progress as "a miracle," and said that she had never dreamed that she would be able to walk again.

The doctors had used multipotent stem cells -- cells capable of growing into a variety of different cell types -- derived from umbilical cord blood which had been frozen immediately after the birth of a baby. They injected these cells directly into the damaged area of the woman's spinal cord.

Research has shown that stem cells from umbilical cord blood, when matched genetically to the patient, do not tend to trigger an attack from the patient's immune system. This is in distinct contrast to ESCs, which tests have shown to form tumors when injected into humans or laboratory animals.

The doctors and researchers involved in the case stressed that more research and confirmation needs to be done before we can draw any universal conclusions from the case, and that is certainly true. However, similar though less spectacular results are being obtained with adult stem cells by physicians and scientists around the world.

As this case vividly illustrates, all the evidence appears to show that there is no need whatever to argue over the morality of using embryonic stem cells, with the attendant killing of developing human fetuses. We can already do much more with adult stem cells, and all indications are that there are countless possibilities for their use that are still untapped. This should be very good news for everyone, of course, but supporters of ESCs seem not to want to hear it, and the press appear to be taking their orders from them.

Why aren't the ESC supporters interested in pursuing ASCs? Let's ask the classic question, cui bono? The only people in the world who benefit from the harvesting of ESCs who would not benefit from ASCs are people who make a living by destroying human embryos. And if we were to find that we simply must harvest ESCs so that we can have all the wonderful benefits they provide, then we would have a real, truly positive good coming from all those abortions the nation's doctors perform each year, wouldn't we?

If that sounds cynical, so be it. At this point, it is in fact the only plausible explanation for the stubborn preference for embryonic stem cells over the adult variety.

It is highly instructive to note that the AFP story was quite positive about the promise of ASCs, given that the news organization is not based in the United States. The AFP story noted that "stem cells isolated from umbilical cord blood have emerged as an ethical and safe alternative to embryonic stem cells," and explicitly pointed out that "there is no ethical dimension when stem cells from umbilical cord blood are obtained, according to researchers."

There is an obvious reason why that side of the story is seldom told in the United States. America's abortionists take in nearly half a billion dollars a year, and they spread a significant amount of money around to pro-abortion advocacy organizations to ensure that abortion remains legal. Not coincidentally, the American press have been remarkably open and consistent in their support for abortion, a position that fits in well with the general sexual latitudinarianism common among the U.S. media, as revealed repeatedly in polls of their opinions and in their coverage of the issues.

The subject of abortion is less controversial in France than in the United States for two important reasons: one, abortions are allowed only in the first trimester, and two, it was passed into law by the legislature, with the implied consent of the population, not imposed by a court decision as was done here.

That goes a long way toward explaining why the truth about the promise of adult stem cells is more likely to be published there. Money talks, literally in this case. In contrast to the levelheaded handling of the issue in the French AFP story, the cynicism of the American media's treatment of the issue is really quite breathtaking.

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About the Author

S. T. Karnick (skarnick@heartland.org) is director of research for the Heartland Institute.