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Stem Cells: Don’t Bury the Story

I snatched my copy of the LA Times off the driveway as usual just after dawn on April 11 and saw the above-the-fold front-page headline: “Researchers use stem cells to rein in Type 1 diabetes.” Jaded by story after story about the potential of embryonic stem cell research, I expected to read of yet another possible cure for some human malady by means of the controversial research. However, nothing on the entire first page indicated what kind of stem cell research had been cited in the study. Here’s the first paragraph:

Researchers have demonstrated for the first time that the progression of Type 1 diabetes can be halted-and possibly reversed-by a stem-cell transplant that preserves the body’s diminishing ability to make insulin, according to a study published today.

Several ensuing paragraphs began this way:

The study suggests a new avenue for treating the intractable disease-

After the stem-cell treatment, patients are absolutely medication-free. The strategy is similar to an approach that has shown some success in treating other immune system disorders-

The researchers also cautioned that the process was not without risk-

“It’s a big deal,” said Dr. Stephen Forman-

Just what is this “new avenue”, “treatment”, “strategy”, “process”, or “big deal”? It would seem that good journalistic practice would identify up-front what this article is about. At this point in the story I wondered, is it possible the LA Times is reporting on adult stem cell research? The word “embryonic” had not yet appeared. Not until paragraph 14 on page A14 of the story did I learn that the stem cell treatment involved the patient’s own bone marrow—so we’re talking adult stem cells. Why not identify the potential breakthrough immediately? After all, adult stem cells present no ethical dilemmas and are readily available. They are the real story here. RTB biochemist Fuz Rana has reported on many studies in recent months on the benefits of adult stem cell research, including one on April 17 (see the TNRTB archives) in which he cited a clinical study showing that heart-attack victims demonstrated slight improvement in heart function after adult stem cell therapy. He also noted that “[t]o date no human trials are in the works for embryonic stem cells.” Fuz has written and spoken extensively on the scientific problems (find two articles here and here) with embryonic stem cell research, including the fact that they produce tumors. Given that embryonic stem cell research suffers from scientific and ethical challenges, does it not make sense to pursue the noncontroversial and already promising adult stem cell therapy? Fuz thinks so, and urges the government to fund adult stem cell research at “Manhattan Project” levels. (That’s $20 billion in 2004 dollars according to Wikipedia.) Conservatives in general and Christians in particular often hear the indictment that their inferior worldview thwarts scientific advance. In conjunction with that accusation comes the charge that blind loyalty to an outdated holy book results in a quirky view of human nature wherein tiny blobs of cells trump the sufferings of real human beings. Is such really the case? RTB science scholars celebrate scientific achievement and look forward to the day—as do those who disagree with Christians on this subject—when breakthroughs help alleviate human suffering. Here’s a chance to pursue that worthy goal together. At least the LA Times reported the research on the front page, so kudos to them for that. But, uh, they kinda missed the story.