"Not With a Bang, But a Whimper: After more than a decade of research on embryonic stem cells, scientists are quietly moving on to greener pastures."
Michael Cook, editor of MercatorNet, has a superb review of the embryonic stem cell controversy.
Let’s wind the clock back to 2003. In January wheelchair-bound quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve visited Australia to promote the legalisation of “therapeutic cloning”. This was absolutely necessary, he said, or patients would die needlessly. Scepticism about the potential of embryonic stem cells was utterly unwarranted. "That's a myth,” he told his Australian audience. “That's not true. Don't let anyone tell you it is a pipedream."
In July that year the New England Journal of Medicine, the world’s leading medical journal, published a review article about the “promise of universal healing” in embryonic stem cells. “The Promethean prospect of eternal regeneration awaits us, while time's vulture looks on,” the hyperventilating author wrote.
In short, people were excited. So excited, in fact, that in 2005 Australia passed legislation enabling “therapeutic cloning” for research purposes.
It’s hard to recapture the intensity of that debate, in Australia and elsewhere. The cause was urgent. “We have lost so much time already, and I just really can't bear to lose any more,” said former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Scientists became political activists. They lobbied politicians and insisted that therapeutic cloning would lead to cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. "I have never seen in my career a biological tool as powerful as the stem cells. It addresses every single human disease," said Hans Keirstead, of the University of California, Irvine.
Dissenters contended that adult stem cells already offered ethical avenues to cures and that embryonic stem cells would never work. Embryos were human beings and that it was moral madness to treat human life as a research tool…
The stakes were immense and the dissenters lost. Ethics had to take a back seat to science…
But the cures never came...
Press releases continued to gush from stem cell institutes, but they were always about promising developments rather than proven cures. In 2011, after many false starts and a year after launching a human trial for spinal cord injuries to cure people like Christopher Reeve, the California-based biotechnology firm Geron pulled the plug on all of its embryonic stem cell research to focus on cancer drugs. It had to: it was going broke.
The reason why stem cell research with embryos has faded from the headlines is that it has been superseded by “induced pluripotent stem cells”. In 2007 Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka showed that it was possible to create stem cell lines from skin cells without destroying embryos. Almost immediately leading stem cell scientists abandoned embryonic stem cell research. Yamanaka – a man who had spurned embryonic stem cell research as unethical -- won the Nobel Prize in Medicine last year...
To get government funding so that they could play God with human embryos, scientists and bioethicists barnstormed, fibbed, exaggerated, hyped, and caricatured. It was a brutal battle in which truth came second. "People need a fairy tale," said Ronald D.G. McKay, another leading stem cell scientist.
Foes of embryo research were called troglodytes and religious fundamentalists. Their scientific credentials were questioned. They were accused of being callous and indifferent to the suffering of patients with chronic illness.
And yet they were right.
Not one person has been cured with embryonic stem cells. Not one. There is still a long way to go before Yamanaka’s cells can be used to treat patients. But the solution, when comes, will not require the destruction of embryos.
Isn’t anyone prepared to say, “Sorry”?