January 12, 2006,
When it comes to cloning, all anyone can talk about lately and understandably so is recently disgraced South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk. One of Time's most influential people of 2004 could prove to be one of the most influential people of 2006, too but in ways he never intended.
Hwang, whose cloning claims have been unraveling in recent weeks, has been exposed as a liar. At first, he delusionally thought he could save himself from public disgrace, trying to talk his way out of revelations about unethical egg-procurement practices. But soon we learned that he faked research, too even though he tried to claim innocence and cry sabotage. And before 2005's end we learned that in his most celebrated "success," Mr. Stem Cell had never, in fact, created any embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos.
This is actually good news. Cloning even under frequently used euphemisms: somatic-cell nuclear transfer, therapeutic cloning, and simply "stem-cell research" would be a giant leap for mankind, and not a good one. To create a life in order to destroy it, as so-called therapeutic cloning would do, is a brave new world for us. A world that, although some states even here have already invested money in pursuing, we have not quite arrived at. Phew.
For the medical community, public policymakers, and investors this is a perfect moment for a collective deep breath, considering these Hwang revelations. (Investors are sometimes you and me in states where such research is publicly funded, including California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey). It's a perfect moment for everyone to start to really pay attention. And to consider that perhaps the road currently less traveled, less reported on, and less invested in may be the one to go down with a new enthusiasm.
The aforementioned road involves alternatives to embryonic-stem-cell research and cloning, namely adult- and umbilical-cord-stem-cell research. Hawaiian singer Don Ho, who was suffering from a weakened heart muscle, says that he could barely walk, never mind sing. Ho underwent an experimental stem-cell surgery in Thailand in early December. "I'm feeling terrific, 100 percent better," Ho told the Associated Press in a pre-Christmas interview.
Ho's help involves multiplying stem cells taken from the patient's blood and injecting them in the heart. The idea is to strengthen the heart muscles. The procedure, which was developed by a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is not currently approved for use in the United States.
Ho's story is anecdotal, but it's but one of many apparent and real successes of late to come from adult- and umbilical-cord-stem-cell research the kind that is free of the heavy and culture-redefining ethical baggage that comes with embryonic-stem-cell research and cloning.
At London's Imperial College, scientists have taken stem cells from the bone marrow of patients to repair their livers. And although a postage stamp in South Korea honors Dr. Hwang with an image of a paraplegic getting out of his wheelchair, a South Korean doctor at Chosun University is credited with actually getting a 19-year paraplegic out of her wheelchair through the use of an umbilical-cord-blood stem-cell therapy. Again, the success of this procedure is anecdotal, but the successes pile up. According to New York Blood Center's National Cord Blood Program, more than 65 diseases have been helped with stem cells from umbilical cord blood. Why aren't these the subjects of extensive media stories and congressional hearings and big-name celebrity endorsements?
When former President Ronald Reagan died in 2004, it was a rare reporter who questioned the Alzheimer's embryonic-stem-cell research hype that accompanied his passing. Ron Reagan, the late president's son, claimed at the Democratic convention that a mere change in administrations in the White House could usher in the "future of medicine" and with it cures for a myriad of diseases within 10 years or so.
Sound too good to be true? Well, maybe. He has no idea. It's all prospective when it comes to embryonic-stem-cell research and cloning. In the Washington Post, one of the few relatively honest reporters on the stem-cell beat noted: "the infrequently voiced reality, stem-cell experts confess, is that, of all the diseases that may someday be cured by embryonic-stem-cell treatments, Alzheimer's is among the least likely to benefit." But instead of more scientific reality checks, the rest of the election year brought more hype than real help.
The same media that, not long ago, hailed Hwang Woo-suk for what has now proved to be science fiction should take this post-Hwang period as a second chance at reporting on stem-cell research and cloning. Reporters ought to try this time really reporting the lay of the land, including the working, ethical research out there just waiting for a little deserved hype.
(c) 2006, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.