Embryonic stem cell research is at a "dead end, with no one good example of a successful treatment."
Dave Weldon on Monday, July 23rd, 2012 in a mock debate
Dave Weldon claims embryonic stem cell research is at a "dead end," with no successful treatments
Former Space Coast Rep. Dave Weldon wants to debate the front-runner in the GOP primary for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat, Rep. Connie Mack IV.
Mack, riding high in the polls with enviable name recognition, isn’t game. So in an unusual yet entertaining move, Weldon created his own six-minute debate with Mack and posted it on his website.
Though Mack’s responses were phony, Weldon used the "debate" to talk up his social conservative credentials.
Moderator: "The government has been paying for stem cell research despite majority opposition. Mr. Mack?"
Fake Mack: "HUH?!?"
Moderator: "Okay, I see you voted for more spending. Dr. Weldon?"
Weldon: "The truth is, research into embryonic stem cells is not only immoral but scientifically it has proven to be a dead end, with no one good example of a successful treatment."
It’s not the first time Mack has differed from fellow Republicans on the issue. Mack voted in favor of bills that would have expanded federal research on embryonic stem cells beyond limitations set by an executive order from President George W. Bush.
Bush vetoed the bills Mack supported, but President Barack Obama kept his promise to lift Bush’s restrictions that federal money not be used for research on embryonic stem cell lines created before 2001. Obama in 2009 talked of "broad agreement in the scientific community that the research should be supported by federal funds."
With that background in mind, we wanted to check Weldon’s claim that embryonic stem cell research "has proven to be a dead end, with no one good example of a successful treatment." We should note that Weldon is an internist and a practicing physician.
Embryonic stem cell research involves experiments on live embryos obtained through extra eggs of in vitro fertilization patients, who must sign consent forms allowing for experimentation. These eggs were not fertilized inside of the women’s body, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Research on human, non-embryonic stem cells is older and less controversial. The key difference is embryonic stem cells can become all cells of the body, while adult stem cells are limited to the cells of their original tissue.
Weldon obviously disagrees, arguing the research is an affront to the sanctity of life because embryos are destroyed in the process. Proponents of expanding embryonic stem cell research say these embryos would be discarded anyway, and it’s worthwhile to explore more uses for embryonic stem cells.
The National Institutes of Health spent about $123 million on research involving human embryonic stem cells in the fiscal year ending in 2011, according to the NIH. The government spends more on other areas in this field, doling out $620 million in 2011 for non-human, non-embryonic stem cell research and $395 million on human non-embryonic work.
The National Academies of Science has also issued guidelines for stem cell research. In its 2008 revision of stem cell research guidelines, it noted that "it is far from clear at this point which cell types will prove to be the most useful for regenerative medicine, and it is likely that each will have some utility."
One group that doesn’t think embryonic stem cell research is at a "dead end" is the Genetics Policy Institute, which will host the World Stem Cell Summit in West Palm Beach, in December 2012.
The first isolation of embryonic stem cells happened just 14 years ago, said Bernard Siegel, the advocacy group’s executive director. It’s a huge discovery -- akin to "nuclear fission in a petri dish" -- that will take time for scientists to unravel, he said.
"I would say the United States could be much further along without opposition to stem cell research, and certainly Dave Weldon is a prime example of someone who has put the brakes on promising research," Siegel said.
A website for which Siegel is a spokesman, StemCellAction.org, lists "recent advances" in embryonic stem cell research across the globe. Yes, he said, Weldon is right that no successful treatments have emerged from these cells, but that perspective dismisses multiple research efforts across the world.
" ‘Treatment’ means something that has gone through an approved clinical trial," Siegel said. "And in fact, one of our very first approved clinical trials is going on now."
That trial involves macular degeneration, which leads to blindness. A preliminary report released in January 2012 described improved vision for two legally blind patients through therapy using human embryonic stem cells. While the New York Times noted a few problems with the report, it was welcome news to proponents who were discouraged after the Geron Corporation called off the world’s first clinical trial around embryonic stem cells.
In announcing the end of its trial, which aimed to treat spinal cord injury, Geron said the company wanted to focus on cancer therapy experiments that were further along, and that it had not lost hope for the embryonic stem cell field.
Many scientists and politicians are hopeful about a recent development that may quell questions of morality. The technique reprograms skin stem cells with embryonic qualities without destroying an embryo. However, the resulting cells are not free of complications, and some studies show they may increase the risk of cancer.
"There’s a lot of potential for them," said Stephen Duncan, director of stem cell biology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "But human embryonic stem cells are the gold standard."
University of Wisconsin developmental biologist James Thomson -- whose research team was first to derive embryonic stem cell lines from human embryos in 1998 -- was among researchers who in 2007 discovered the reprogrammable cells. Even with the discovery, he said it was not time to stop researching embryonic stem cells.
Thousands of stem cell researchers assembled in Yokohama, Japan, for the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in June 2012, including Lawrence Goldstein. Goldstein is one of the society’s board members and director of the stem cell program at the University of California, San Diego.
"I wouldn’t be doing this if I thought it was a dead end," he said, referring to his own research that aims to develop a therapy for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. "The (academic) papers are not saying ‘we’re closing this area down because there are no interesting scientific leads.’ In fact, the area fuels research on embryonic stem cells and reprogrammed stem cell research. The area (Weldon) would support would be going more slowly without the work on embryonic."
Weldon’s synopsis of embryonic stem cell research as at a scientific "dead end" does not appear to be widely shared by scientists. Research is ongoing, and scientists say it’s too early to call it quits on a discovery made in 1998.
Weldon’s second point about there being "no one good successful treatment" from embryonic stem cell research is accurate, though scientists say it is premature and unrealistic given the field’s bureaucratic constraints.
On the whole, we rate this statement Mostly False.