A damning reporting pattern.
April 23, 2002, 8:45 a.m.
By Wesley J. Smith
The pattern in the media reportage about stem cells is growing very wearisome. When a research advance occurs with embryonic stem cells, the media usually give the story the brass-band treatment. However, when researchers announce even greater success using adult stem cells, the media reportage is generally about as intense and excited as a stifled yawn.
As a consequence, many people in this country continue to believe that embryonic stem cells offer the greatest promise for developing new medical treatments using the body's cells — known as regenerative medicine — while in actuality, adult and alternative sources of stem cells have demonstrated much brighter prospects. This misperception has societal consequences, distorting the political debate over human cloning and embryonic-stem-cell research (ESCR) and perhaps even affecting levels of public and private research funding of embryonic and adult stem-cell therapies.
This media pattern was again in evidence in the reporting of two very important research breakthroughs announced within the last two weeks. Unless you made a point of looking for these stories — as I do in my work — you might have missed them. Patients with Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis received significant medical benefit using experimental adult-stem-cell regenerative medical protocols. These are benefits that supporters of embryonic-stem-cell treatments have yet to produce widely in animal experiments. Yet adult stem cells are now beginning to ameliorate suffering in human beings.
Celebrity Parkinson's disease victims such as Michael J. Fox and Michael Kinsley regularly tout ESCR as the best hope for a cure of their disease. Indeed, the Washington Post recently published a Kinsley rant on the subject in which the editor and former Crossfire co-host denounced opponents of human cloning as interfering with his hope for a cure. Yet as loudly as Fox and Kinsley promote ESCR in the media or before legislative committees, both have remained strangely silent about the most remarkable Parkinson's stem-cell experiment yet attempted: one in which researchers treated Parkinson's with the patient's own adult stem cells.
Here's the story, in case you missed it: A man in his mid-50s had been diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 49. The disease grew progressively, leading to tremors and rigidity in the patient's right arm. Traditional drug therapy did not help.
Stem cells were harvested from the patient's brain using a routine brain biopsy procedure. They were cultured and expanded to several million cells. About 20 percent of these matured into dopamine-secreting neurons. In March 1999, the cells were injected into the patient's brain.
Three months after the procedure, the man's motor skills had improved by 37 percent and there was an increase in dopamine production of 55.6 percent. One year after the procedure, the patient's overall Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale had improved by 83 percent — this at a time when he was not taking any other Parkinson's medication!
That is an astonishing, remarkable success, one that you would have thought would set off blazing headlines and lead stories on the nightly news. Had the treatment been achieved with embryonic stem cells, undoubtedly the newspapers would have screamed loudly enough to be heard. Unfortunately, reportage about the Parkinson's success story was strangely muted. True, the Washington Post ran an inside-the-paper story and there were some wire service reports. But the all-important New York Times — the one news outlet that drives television and cable news — did not report on it at all. Nor did a search of the Los Angeles Times website yield any stories about the experiment.
Human multiple-sclerosis patients have now also benefited from adult-stem-cell regenerative medicine. A study conducted by the Washington Medical Center in Seattle involved 26 rapidly deteriorating MS patients. First, physicians stimulated stem cells from the patients' bone marrow to enter the bloodstream. They then harvested the stem cells and gave the patients strong chemotherapy to destroy their immune systems. (MS is an autoimmune disorder in which the patient's body attacks the protective sheaths that surround bundles of nerves.) Finally, the researchers reintroduced the stem cells into the patients, hoping they would rebuild healthy immune systems and ameliorate the MS symptoms.
It worked. Of the 26 patients, 20 stabilized and six improved. Three patients experienced severe infections and one died.
That is a very positive advance offering great hope. But rather than making headlines, the test got less attention than successful animal studies using embryonic cells. The Los Angeles Times ran a brief bylined description, while the New York Times and Washington Post only published wire reports. Once again, the media's almost grudging coverage prevented society at large from becoming acutely aware of how exciting adult-cell regenerative medicine is fast becoming.
Meanwhile in Canada, younger MS patients whose diseases were not as far advanced as those in the Washington study have shown even greater benefit from the same procedure. Six months after the first patient was treated, she was found to have no evidence of the disease on MRI scans. Three other patients have also received successful adult-stem-cell grafts with no current evidence of active disease.
It's still too early to tell whether the Canadian patients have achieved permanent remission or a cure, but there can be no question that the research is significant. Yet the story was only publicized in Canada's Globe and Mail and in reports on Canadian television. American outlets did not mention the experiments at all.
These Parkinson's and MS studies offer phenomenal evidence of the tremendous potential adult cell regenerative medicine offers. At the same time, the unspectacular coverage these breakthroughs received highlights the odd lack of interest in adult stem-cell research exhibited by most mainstream media outlets. Nor are these stories the only adult-stem-cell successes to have gotten the media cold shoulder.
It's worth recapping just a few of the other advances made in adult-cell
therapies and research in the last two years, all of which were significantly
underplayed in the media:
Israeli doctors inserted a paraplegic patient's own white blood cells into her severed spinal cord, after which she regained bladder control and the ability to wiggle her toes and move her legs. (I only saw reporting on this case in the Globe and Mail, June 15, 2001.)
Immune systems destroyed by cancer were restored in children using stem cells from umbilical-cord blood. (There was a good story in the April 16, 2001 Time, but other than that I saw no reporting.)
At Harvard University, mice with Type I diabetes were completely cured of their disease. The experiment was so successful that human trials are now planned. (This was reported in the July 19, 2001, Harvard University Gazette, but I saw no coverage at all in the mainstream press.)
Diabetic mice treated with adult stem cells achieved full insulin production and all lived. This is in contrast to an experiment in which embryonic stem cells injected into diabetic mice achieved a 3 percent insulin production rate and all the mice died. (According to the May 2001 STATS, published by the Statistical Assessment Service, the embryo experiment made big news while the media ignored the adult cell experiment.)
How many humans have been treated by embryonic stem cells? Zero. Indeed, before human trials can even be safely undertaken researchers will have to overcome two serious difficulties that stand between patients and embryonic-cell regenerative medicine: 1) ES cells cause tumors, and 2) ES cells may be rejected by the immune system. Surmounting these difficulties — if they can be surmounted at all — will take a very long time and much expense. There is no risk of rejection with adult cells, by contrast, because they come from the patients' own bodies. Nor, at least so far, does adult-stem-cell therapy appear to cause tumors. This puts adult therapies years ahead of the game.
The media continue to imply that embryos hold the key to the future. But increasingly, it looks as if our own body cells offer the quickest and best hope for regenerative medicine. The time has come for the public to insist that the media stop acting as if adult stem cells are the "wrong" kind of stem cells, and report to the American people fully and fairly the remarkable advances continually being made in adult regenerative medicine.
— Mr. Smith is the author of Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America. His next book will be A Consumer's Guide to Brave New World, a discussion of the business, science, and morality of human cloning.