The Unconscionable Claims of Michael J. Fox
The popular and appealing actor Michael J. Fox has taken to the airwaves in Senate battleground states Missouri, Maryland, and New Jersey with a highly misleading ad urging defeat of Republican Senatorial candidates opposing the use of taxpayer dollars to fund new embryonic stem cell line research. He states,
"Stem cell research offers hope to millions of Americans with diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.... But George Bush and Michael Steele would put limits on the most promising stem cell research."
Mr. Fox and his ads' sponsors are guilty of conflating embryonic stem cell research, which the GOP candidates and many Americans oppose for destroying a human life in the name of curing other people's diseases, with stem cell research in general, which includes adult stem cell research and umbilical cord blood stem cell research.
The only limits in question are on federal funding of new embryonic stem cell lines, requiring the sacrifice of new embryos. Private and state—funded research (California voters are spending six billion dollars borrowing money to fund this) is ongoing. The implicit claim that research based on new embryos is 'the most promising' is absurd, completely unsupported by the scientific literature, and an insult to voters, based as it is on the assumption that they are incapable of understanding the issue. Too stupid to tell the difference, is the elitist assumption underlying this campaign.
Flim—flam is a charitable description. Why would federally—funded research be more promising than state— and privately—funded research? And on what possible basis can the claim be made that embryonic stem cell research is more promising than adult stem cell research?
The plain fact is that embryonic stem cell research is proving to be a bust. There are currently 72 therapies showing human benefits using adult stem cells and zero using embryonic stem cells. Scientifically—minded readers can review this medical journal article on the status of adult stem cell research. Adult stem cell therapies are already being advertised and promoted while no such treatments are even remotely in prospect for embryonic stem cell research.
The fact is that adult stem cells have already produced remarkable cures, whereas embryonic stem cells have failed. This should come as no great surprise to anyone with a background in high school biology. When an embryo is created by the union of the sperm and egg, the cells begin to divide, creating embryonic stem cells from which all future tissues and organs are derived. Within days, the embryonic cells differentiate into three cell layers — ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm. Cells in these layers continue to differentiate into tissues and organs. As the embryo matures into a fetus, child, and adult, some undifferentiated cells of the three types remain in various tissues such as bone marrow, fat, skin and olfactory tissue.
These adult stem cells are multipotent: they have the ability to turn into a variety of types of tissues. Successful stem cell therapies cause the DNA in the adult stem cells to further differentiate into more specific types of cells. There is no point in getting the adult stem cell to turn into a less differentiated type of cell, or using the more primitive embryonic stem cells. This would be going backward, in the opposite direction of providing a clinically useful therapy.
Difficulties abound with proposed embryonic stem cell therapies. The growth of the more primitive embryonic stem cells is more difficult to control and leads to tumor formation. Recent research suggests brain tumors may result. Additionally, the use of embryonic tissue foreign to the patient can potentially lead to problems with immune rejection of tissue, a problem not encountered in using a patient's own adult stem cells.
America is the most formidable medical research center in the world, but it is far from alone in pursuing the potential of adult stem cells. The worldwide effort is impressive and growing. For non—adult stem cell research, a morally unquestionable alternative source exists: stem cells drawn from umbilical cord blood. Already a bank exists in Dubai collecting cord blood stem cells.
In short, the claims made in the Michael J. Fox political ads are false and reprehensible, an insult to the voters of Maryland, Missouri and New Jersey, and to all Americans.
Mary L. Davenport, MD is an obstetrician and gynecologist, and a Fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.