With Stem Cells, Frist Backs a Loser

Posted: Aug 04, 2005 12:00 AM

The space shuttle program would seem to have nothing to do Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist’s call for dramatically expanded federal aid for embryonic stem cell research, but there are striking parallels.


Whatever NASA may claim, there’s little the shuttle can do that unmanned spaceships cannot – at much lower costs. But NASA knows what sci-fi writers always have, that we’re enamored of manned space flight. The shuttle’s main mission is maintaining the Agency’s prestige and budget.


Yet if the shuttle has had little use, ESCs so far have had none. They’ve never been tested on humans. And like the shuttle, there are far superior alternatives. Culled from numerous body tissues, these are generally called “adult stem cells.” Yet ASCs are routinely downplayed or ignored precisely because ESCs, like the shuttle, are of little value to the human race but are tremendously valuable for individual reputations and budgets.


Which brings us to Bill Frist’s break with the Bush administration, regarding more federal ESC funding (Note: one of the myths surrounding ESC research is that it currently receives no federal support, while another even claims research is illegal.)


Frist’s position is compelling, we’re told, not just because he’s the highest-ranking Senate Republican but also a physician. Actually, that makes him as much a specialist on stem cells as a plumber is on aquatic chemistry. A bit of reading will give you more knowledge about these cells than the average doctor possesses. You might learn that ASCs are CURRENTLY used in over 250 human clinical trials and are treating over 80 different diseases.


ESC researchers sniff that this is only because their field is newer, but research on both types of cell dates back to the 1950s. ESCs aren’t playing catch-up; they’re falling behind.


Oddly, although Frist is a heart transplant physician he seems clueless that some of the most exciting ASC work directly involves his field. ASCs have induced either muscle or vessel growth in human hearts in hundreds of patients worldwide. Next month, Brazil begins heart ASC experiments involving 1,200 persons.


Another myth that Frist propagated in his “breakaway” speech is that “embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide.” In fact, ALL that ESCs have is promise. That’s why advocates feel obliged to claim they’ll eventually cure every disease from Alzheimer’s to acne. But again, had Frist done his homework he’d know that three years ago scientists began changing ASCs into ALL three types of cells the body produces.


Since then, countless labs have used various forms of ASCs to make all those cell types, but ESC advocates insist you not know this. They also go bonkers if you mention at least four different methods of creating ESCs without destroying embryos are being developed, as the June issue of Wired documents. They want that money NOW!


Ironically, the clamor for massively-increased public funding for ESCs is precisely because their practical applications, if any, lie many years in the future while those of ASCs are here and now. The media may go gaga over ESC researchers’ pie-in-the-sky claims but private investors know better. (Except when the government injects funding into ESC research, such as happened with California’s Proposition 71; huge fortunes were made or – in the case of Bill Gates – simply expanded.)


This isn’t to say ASC research NEEDS public funding either. But they could easily handle far more federal support without using it to gold-plate the operating instruments. As I’ve earlier written, prominent Harvard researcher Dr. Denise Faustman may well have found a cure for type 1 diabetes involving ASCs but cannot proceed with testing for lack of money.


Meanwhile, the federal medical research budget has virtually stopped expanding so that more spending for anything means less for other things; more for ESCs means less for ASCs. Why rob Producing Peter to pay Potential Paul?


Discussions of the morality of ESC usage are not irrelevant, but science alone makes the case against ESCs. If the technology has a fraction of the true potential its backers claim, the market will fund it. But if you’re an investor who really believes the hype, I’ve got a space shuttle to sell you.


Michael Fumento (mfumento[at]pobox.com) is author of BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing our World , a fellow at Hudson Institute, and a nationally syndicated columnist with Scripps Howard News Service.