Reading the reports about the new embryonic stem cell trial for spinal cord injury that have been all over the BBC and the British papers today I am struggling to know what all the fuss is about and why in fact it is even news at all.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is causing such excitement for five main reasons:
1.Our media are obsessed with any story involving embryonic stem cells despite the fact that these entities have not yet provided any treatments for any human disease after more than ten years of hype (By contrast adult and umbilical stem cells have already provided treatments for over 80 diseases – see my Triple Helix review)
2.Because there is ethical controversy in their use (as harvesting them involves the destruction of human embryos) it provides an opportunity for the media to revive the myth that religious zealots are trying to hold back scientific advance and stop millions of people being cured from terrible diseases.
3.The science correspondents writing for our national newspapers seem not to read medical journals any more but simply regurgitate press releases produced by commercial companies (like Geron) who wish to promote their products and improve their public image.
4.Geron have lots of money (they have already spent $170m developing this ‘treatment’) and a very good PR machine.
5.British scientists are worried about research funding in the current economic climate and so are trying to attract public and media attention in the hope of attracting grants so they are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible politicians and members of the public with exaggerated claims.
If you go to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website which logs current clinical trials you will find there are 3,124 listings of trials involving adult stem cells and 141 involving umbilical stem cells. These therapies are increasingly well established and pose no ethical problems (and so are of little interest to the British media).
By contrast today’s story is of the first clinical trial involving embryonic stem cells after over a decade of breath-holding.
There are no results yet and no scientific papers yet published in any peer-reviewed journals.
Nor will you learn from any UK media outlet today that there have been clinical trials involving (adult) stem cell treatments for spinal cord injury going on for some years now.
This story seems to be in the news simply because Geron have decided to announce to the world that they have started a clinical trial involving a possible future treatment that has not yet (and may well never) actually deliver.
Just over a week ago I blogged about a new advance in stem cell technology - involving a new improved method of producing induced pluri-potent stem cells (iPs) from ethically harvested adult cells - that led to over 1,400 headlines worldwide.
The British press has to my knowledge still not noticed it – presumably because it did not come packaged in easy cut and paste format from a biotechnology company with a financial vested interest.
For those who are interested in reading a more balanced overview of the research currently going on into stem cell treatments for spinal cord injury in different centres around the world - and about the relative merits of the several different kinds of adult and umbilical stem cells that have been used in animal experiments, or are currently being used in human trials - I would recommend, for starters, the following review articles freely available on the internet.
1.Challenges of Stem Cell Therapy for Spinal Cord Injury: Human Embryonic Stem Cells, Endogenous Neural Stem Cells, or Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells?
2.Stem cell-based therapies for spinal cord injury.
3.Stem and progenitor cell therapies: recent progress for spinal cord injury repair
And if you would to know more about all the varied avenues of work in which researchers are involved in trying to develop treatments for spinal cord injury then try typing the words ‘spinal cord injury’ into the search box here.
When I checked there were 304 clinical trials listed – with only one (today’s story) involving embryonic stem cells!