Stem Cell Research: Myths and Realities

This post is a supplement to Funky’s call for clarity in the stem cell
. It was originally published in The Catholic Anchor, a student-run newspaper/magazine sponsored by the Ryan Catholic Newman Center.

Over the past five years, the embryonic stem cell debate has haunted
politicians and voters alike, and it has not grown any easier to cut
through the rhetoric coming from the politicians and activists. Last
year, President Bush said that federal spending on embryonic stem cells
should be limited. On the other side, Kerry and Edwards promised
extensive support on embryonic research, promising cures to a host of

Now that the hype has died down for a little while, I found two articles
that do a good job of representing where stem cell research stands On
one hand, there is an article (, January 16,
2005) about a paraplegic woman in Michigan is learning how to walk again
thanks to cell treatment. While we could not see Christopher Reeve walk
again, at least such a cure is drawing closer for the many other
paralysis victims in the United States

On the other hand, we learned (via, January 31, 2005, and, January 30,
2005) that embryonic stem cells have been converted to motor neurons,
and that researchers are planning on transplanting these cells into a
lab animal. Presumably all their work has been in vitro so far,
with isolated cells in a culture dish and not inside a living organism.

We have two articles: In one case, we made human embryonic stem cells
become human nerve cells; in the other case, a woman is learning how to
walk While is a small news service like,
Wired is an influential technology magazine. Should
it not be a bigger deal that a human being is being at least partially
cured of paralysis?

Big Media is often suspiciously quiet about adult stem cell
successes in human, while an embryonic stem cell experiment performed on
animals may get prime coverage at the New York Times.

I have been in stem cell-related activism since 1999, when the NIH under
the Clinton administration opened the issue of embryonic stem cell
research (ESCR) to public opinion. The myths I saw blinding people about
the real issues with stem cell research back then are still as strong as
ever now. I hope, Gentle Reader, that this article may set the record
straight on some key issues.

Myth One: ESCR is the only form of stem cell research, and if you
oppose ESCR, you therefore oppose all stem cell research.

Wrong Embryonic stem cells are but one kind of stem cell
Human embryonic stem cells are derived from 4 to 5 day-old embryos This
is before cells differentiate into the many tissues and organs making up
a more mature human. Thus, those cells have the potential to grow into
many different tissue types, making them potentially very useful as a
flexible tool to rebuild lost or damaged tissue. They are called
pluripotent stem cells for this reason, since they have the power or
potential to develop into many (plures)
types of cells.

However, many tissues in a mature human have another class of stem
cell called multipotent stem cells. As I will discuss later, these cells
have great promise in research. But the take-home message for this myth
is that one may oppose embryonic research and still support stem cell
research. Opposing ESCR does not make you some anti-science Luddite. It
just means that you think that it violates medical and scientific ethics.

Myth Two: Even though we have adult multipotent stem
cells, they may not be able to do everything that embryonic stem cells
can. Therefore, we still need ESCR.

Multipotent adult stem cells are more specialized than
embryonic stem cells, but recent studies suggest that they can do
whatever we want. You may find these stem cells in bone marrow, skin,
fat (no shortage of that!), and even in the brain, which people had
previously assumed had no ability to regenerate. Scientists believed
that these stem cells could only differentiate into whatever tissue they
were found in. A bone marrow stem cell could produce a white blood cell,
for instance, but not a neuron. Recent studies have shown that
multipotent stem cells can be “coaxed” into assuming many different
studies. One exciting study on rats used bone marrow-derived stem cells
to repair heart tissue damaged by a heart attack, for instance. On
February 2, 2005, The Washington Post reported a new type of adult stem
cell in the bone marrow that may be as versatile as embryonic stem

However, even if there are some inherent limitations on just how far
you can get a multipotent stem cell to change, because they appear in so
many tissues in the body, you can probably find a stem cells that come
from whatever organ or tissue that you are trying to treat.

The aforementioned Wired article on stem cells even mentioned that
getting embryonic cells to assume a particular identity is difficult,
which is the chief reason why the experiment creating nerve cells is
getting attention. The vaunted flexibility of pluripotent stem cells can
therefore also be curse: If you cannot get the cells to reliably assume
a particular identity for a particular disease, they are useless, or
even harmful, to a patient.

Myth Three: Embryonic stem cell therapies are around the

ESCR advocates have done much to manipulate feelings: They imply
that embryonic stem cells are the only answer (see Myth One) and then
bring out Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve (may he rest in peace)
and made people feel that by opposing embryonic research, they were
denying Fox and Reeve a chance at life because (they imply) big
discoveries are just around the corner.

The fact is that embryonic stem cells have not had a single
successful clinical trial in humans. The press loves to play up whenever
there is a successful ESCR experiment on rats or monkeys, but adult stem
cells have already cured 56 human illnesses. That?s right;
we treated real patients with adult stem cells and cured them outright
or greatly alleviated the symptoms. These are not just animal
experiments and speculation. Adult stem cells are delivering the goods,
while the ESCR activists just deliver promises.

Check out Do No Harm?s website at for
their “scoreboard” on embryonic versus adult stem cell cures, and links
to articles on some of these advances.

Myth Four: People oppose embryonic research solely on
religious grounds.

Presumably in a pluralist society, we should avoid theological
arguments that may leave out people of different faiths.

This makes some sense, though I must say that nobody seems to have a
problem with the extensive religious involvement with civil rights from
the Reverend Martin Luther King on to the social justice crusaders of
today. However, I should point out prominent pro-lifer Nat Hentoff. Mr.
Hentoff is an atheist liberal and 1st Amendment champion who
writes for the ultra-liberal Village Voice. Hardly a
Bible-thumper! Yet he courageously argues for the dignity of human life
from conception till natural death.

The surprising fact is that the general pro-life position
about personhood starting at conception is at least as scientifically
solid as other theories. Pro-lifers generally consider personhood to
begin with conception, when a new, genetically unique organism is
created. Pro-choice positions generally define personhood when some part
of development happens, such as organ differentiation or nervous system
development. They are not always very clear about why these
developmental milestones should matter, about why a switch is flipped
when the neural tube closes and a non-person becomes a person. For many
pro-choicers, personhood is up for negotiation, so to speak, and if the
parents do not want the fetus?or even a newborn?then that newborn?s
rights are null and void. This is the position of Princeton?s Peter
Singer, for instance, who supports infanticide on babies as old as 28

Of course, if personhood is up for negotiation, could not any
minority be denied humanity/personhood when the rest of the population
decides to “vote them off the island”? We have had enough cases of
genocide in the past century to last us for the rest of human history,
thank you! We do not need to sacrifice human lives or dignity for vague,
long-term promises of a medical revolution.

The stem cell revolution is already here in the form of adult stem
cell technology, and there are plenty of adult stem cells for the taking
in our own bodies.