Refreshing Honesty in the Stem Cell Debates

Generally I have found the media pretty servile in their coverage of stem cells:
they cannot mention adult stem cells without saying that some people do not think
them as versatile as embryonic stem cells, even though adult stem cells have treated
patients successfully and embryonic stem cells have yet to do so anywhere. There
is also the fact that you see people like Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox pressing
hard to get funding for embryonic research, implying
that wondrous cures are just around the corner if only obstructive politicians would
get out of the way
. This is despite the fact that this technology is, well,
pretty embryonic itself, and candid scientists will admit that we’re decades from
any real treatment from embryonic cells.

Well, in the wake of Mr. Reagan’s passing, Wired
and the Washington
have more honest appraisals of what embryonic cells could really do for
Alzheimer’s disease. The Post is particularly valuable in that they bring attention
to the fact that Alzheimer’s destroys the architecture of the brain–how can one
unscramble an egg, and even if you do replace the tissue with normal brain tissue,
will the patient still have his or her own personality and memories? Perhaps even
more importantly, the Post shows how scientists and celebrities have manipulated
the public in order to get more funding–for this and other examples of journalistic
objectivity that I rarely see in papers like the NY Times, I am becoming quite a
fan of the Washington Post!

I just read an excellent story (“Presence”, by Maureen F. McHugh) about
a near-future family, where a wife watches her husband change after an experimental
Alzheimer’s treatment, and it deals with just this question, how regenerating someone’s
brain will inevitably alter their personality. You can read “Presence”
and a number of other excellent stories in Gardner Dozois’ Twentieth Annual The
Year’s Best Science Fiction
. It is a very sensitive story about a woman’s
courage and love in dealing with a horrible illness that took her husband.