Stem Cell Research: Fact and Fiction

| Fri Nov. 3, 2006 5:30 PM EST

Stem cells have become the superstars of this election season, with their profiles raised by celebrities and ad campaigns. But this has led to the propagation of certain myths surrounding the issue. An interview with Jesse Reynolds, spokesman for the Center for Genetics and Society, shed some light on the realities of the issue. The center conducts policy research and advocacy on issues surrounding genetics.

Fiction: Embryonic stem cell research is illegal in the United States.

Fact: All forms of embryonic stem cell research are legal at the federal level, but President Bush has cut funding for such initiatives. South Dakota is the only state bans embryonic stem cell research in all its forms, and about a half dozen states ban research cloning. For more information on the specific legalities, visit the website of National Conference of State Legislators.

Fiction: Embryonic stem cell research destroys embryos.

Fact: "Almost all embryonic stem cell research uses embryos left over from [in vitro fertilization] clinics that would effectively be destroyed anyway," Reynolds told Mother Jones. However, if more labs were to develop cloning of embryos for their stem cells, eggs would be required. Unlike embryos, eggs cannot be frozen – although researchers have been working on the technology. Some opponents of stem cell research like Patricia Heaton are worried that women may be exploited for their eggs. While many pro-life groups are also opposed to stem cell research for the reason that it is destroying embryos, other groups that are pro-choice have expressed concerned over the collecting of women's eggs. These include the Center for Genetics and Society, the California Nurses Association, and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of CaliforniaEconomic incentives might be offered to have women take hormones to produce eggs that can be extracted for research purposes.

Fiction: All scientists interested in this type of research want to clone embryos.

Fact: According to the Center for Genetics and Society, only about a half a dozen labs in the United States are working on developing stem cells from cloned embryos. "The cloning is a small part of [embryonic] stem cell research and it's at a very early stage. There are no therapies from it or from any other form of stem cell research," said Reyolds. But Reynolds also pointed out that cloned embryos could be created to isolate more specific genes.

Fiction: By using stem cells, scientists could develop cures for diseases within the next few years.

Fact: Any type of clinical trial is actually about 15 years away, with another five year waiting period before medications would be prescribed. "We're not talking about the next political cycle," said Reynolds.

Fiction: Stem cell research offers a guaranteed cure for everything from cancer to Alzheimer's.

Fact: As a relatively common disease with very grave effects, Alzheimer's has a high media profile in the stem cell debate. But, despite Ron Reagan's appeals for stem cell research on behalf of people who suffer from the same disease as his late father, a cure is not assured through the controversial technology.

According to Reynolds, researchers are much closer to cures for diabetes than they are to cures for Alzheimer's through stem cell therapy. "I'm yet to see researcher as opposed to a research advocate assert that it's on a short list," said Reynolds.

Fiction: Certain opponents of stem cell research point out that further advances have been made in adult stem cell therapy than embryonic or other forms.

Fact: "It's tricky because opponents of [embryonic] stem cell research like to point out that alternatives exist and the therapies are much further along," said Reyolds. "That is something along the lines of what is called a red herring." Adult stem cells are used in procedures such as bone marrow transplants which have been done since 1968. The first stem cell line was created and patented in 1998 by James Thompson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. "All born humans have stem cells in them that are less ethically problematic but are also less powerful," said Reyolds.

--Caroline Dobuzinskis