Democrats’ embryonic stem cell strategy hits scientific wall

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The Democrats’ decade-long strategy of hyping embryo stem cell research crashed into a hard fact on Nov.15. That’s when Geron Corp., the world’s leading embryo research company, announced it was closing down its much-touted stem cell program, despite the guarantee of more government aid from Democratic-affiliated sources.

The political battle waged over embryonic stem cell research burst onto the front pages in 2001, when many reporters and scientists began touting stem cells as medical miracles that would offer cures for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s and other diseases.

From 2000 onwards, “Democrats and liberals were hyping the research absurdly,” Princeton professor Robert George, a member of President George. W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, told The Daily Caller. “There was no real prospect of therapeutic uses of [Geron’s] embryonic stem cells.”

University of Pennsylvania bioethics professor Art Caplan agreed. “Companies like Geron tried to attract investors by over promising.”

Social conservatives and some liberals were appalled by the prospect of companies, such as Geron, manufacturing embryos so their parts could be sold to the highest bidder. Democrats, however, eagerly used the prospect of miracle cures to lure sick voters and retirees, flatter professionals and stigmatize conservatives as being anti-science.

President George W. Bush offered a 2001 compromise in the stem cell debate, permitting the study of less controversial stem cells found in adults and providing limited funds for research on stem cells already harvested from embryos.

The compromise failed to slow the Democrats’ political strategy, although it did nudge medical research in a more ethical path, say some conservatives.

“Bush’s policy created a defensible line against the development of Brave New World technologies paid for by taxpayers,” such as human clones for use in lab experiments, said Wesley Smith, a pro-life but politically moderate ethicist.

The end of Geron’s embryo stem-cell work now leaves the stem cell field dominated by two other types of stem-cells. Both are supported by social conservatives, and both were derided by Democrats and many reporters.

The leading stem cell technology is found in many hospitals, where doctors and surgeons use cells found in patients’ own organs. Those “adult stem cells” can be stimulated to regenerate damaged hearts and other organs. In one peer reviewed study published on Nov. 16, more than a dozen heart-failure patients gained an average 12 percent improvement in heart function from their own stimulated stem cells.

This uncontroversial adult cell technology was pioneered by hospitals, not drug companies. It is sufficiently reliable that insurance companies green-light its use for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, lupus and many other ailments, and it is cheered by social conservatives and religious groups because it improves medical treatments without killing human embryos.

The second type is called IPS stem cell technology. It was developed by Japanese researchers in 2007, and uses a surprisingly simple cocktail of human biochemicals to make ordinary cells, such as skin cells, revert into embryo-like cells.  IPS stands for “induced pluripotent stem cells.”

IPS cells are not used for transplants. Instead, they are grown into clumps of kidney cells, brain cells, heart cells, or whatever is required. Scientists working with drug companies use those clumps as human lab rats. This technology promises to help bring new drugs to market in record time, at a lower cost, and with fewer side effects.

Someday, vats of IPS cells may be used to produce health-boosting biochemicals, or to be transplanted back into human patients.

But Geron’s stem cell technology used cells taken from embryo-stage human beings. Extracting the cells killed the embryos, ensuring opposition from social conservatives and some left-of-center groups.

Geron had planned to sell its embryo stem cells for transplants and for drug development.

Some of its stem cells were to be transplanted back into humans. But if even a few stem cells went rogue, they would result in cancer — and a lawsuit.

To minimize those risks, Geron planned to grow batches of cells from human embryos that were themselves created in its lab.  The technology was so complex, risky and politically controversial that the company had managed to test these Franken-embryonic stem cells in only two people by this fall. The company did not release the test results when it ended research.

The company expected to make most of its money by selling embryonic stem cells to scientists who are trying to develop and test new drugs. But now the drug research market has been mostly taken over by the uncontroversial, low-risk IPS technology.

Geron’s failure is actually good for the embryo cell technology, argues Caplan. That’s because its technology is not ready for clinical trials, and a botched medical test could discredit the technology and choke off investment, he said.

From 2000 onwards, a coalition of Democratic legislators, pharmaceutical and university lobbyists, and abortion-choice activists and many sympathetic progressive groups, slammed President George W. Bush’s August 2001 compromise, ostensibly because he did not fully endorse and fund Geron’s embryo technology.

The Democrats used the dispute to paint conservatives as uneducated religious opponents of science, while also painting Democrats as science-loving, kind-hearted funders of life-saving cures for ailing voters and their families.

The strategy was built on quiet deals between scientists’ lobbies, academic lobbies, business lobbies, reporters and especially abortion-choice groups, who were eager to paint their pro-life rivals as opponents of science.

The involvement of the abortion-choice groups effectively eliminated any chance of a legislative compromise, or of balanced media coverage.

“By hyping stem cells, the Democratic guys could accuse [conservatives] of being anti-science,” said Caplan. “Those deals were wink-wink deals, but they were going on,” he said.

The embryo stem-cell strategy was expected by Democratic strategists to boost Democrats’ support among professionals, the medical research sector, elderly voters, female supporters of legal abortion and progressives.

The most brazen pitch came in 2004 when Ron Reagan, the son of President Ronald Reagan, was given a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention to push the political strategy.

“I am here tonight to talk about the issue of research into what may be the greatest medical breakthrough in our, or in any, lifetime: The use of embryonic stem cells — cells created using the material of our own bodies — to cure a wide range of fatal and debilitating illnesses,” he declared.

His speech hit poll-tested themes and aimed for sympathy from critical voting blocs.

“How’d you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital? Sound like magic? Welcome to the future of medicine. … It does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many. … We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology.”

The pitch, said Princeton’s George, “was an utter disgrace.”

The Democrats “were the ones that were being anti-science,” said David Prentice, a biochemist and former medical professor who now works for the Family Research Council. “They were trying to use this an an ideological wedge, but the real science … that has born real fruit, has been the adults’ stem cells.”

In fact, the Democrats’ strategy may actually have slowed the development of therapies for sick Americans.

That’s because many Democratic activists, allied university scientists and sympathetic reporters disdained the adult stem cell technology. This opposition allowed foreign surgeons and scientists to pioneer many of the developments that American hospitals could not get federal grants  to pursue.

The mass media aligned with the Democrats “because the science community and the patients’ community was on the pro-[embryo stem-cell] side,” said Caplan. “They tended to listen to those voices more than the political [conservatives] and religious [advocates] and few scientists” pushing the rival technologies, he said.

The false media-magnified hopes were especially poignant among the desperate patients recruited by scientists’ groups to serve as heart-tugging lobbyists and media interviewees.

“Elite opinion in this country is socially liberal,” said George. “Most editors, reporters and media commentators are drawn from the elite sector of the culture… [and] favor candidates who share their values,” he said. “That’s not really surprising, given human nature.”

Many scientists also played along, partly because they don’t like regulation of their trade, but also because they were eager to make deals with Democrats, with Geron and with the drug companies.

As part of the political campaign, several states governed by Democrats funded scientists studying embryo research. California allocated $3 billion over 10 years, and New York adopted legislation designed to shield academics and companies that created and grew embryo-stage humans for lucrative lab testing of novel pharmaceutical compounds.

The scientists “didn’t level with the public, particularly about the obstacles to therapeutic uses” of Geron’s technology, said George. “Now those who exaggerated, or failed to set the record straight when others exaggerated, look dishonest,” he said.

“They are certainly less likely to be believed in the future.”

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