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Researcher says media distorted 2 recent adult stem cell studies

WASHINGTON (BP)–Recent scientific research presented by some news organizations as having sounded the death knell for adult stem cells has been “distorted” in media reports, according to one of the studies’ authors, CNSNews.com reported March 25.

Two studies, carried out by researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, were reported as suggesting that, contrary to other research findings over the past three years, adult stem cells were not able to differentiate into various types of tissue.

Pro-lifers have been enthusiastic about the potential therapeutic benefits of adult stem cells, considering them an effective and ethical alternative to the destructive use of human embryos for stem cell research purposes.

But reports on the new studies suggested that the apparent flexibility of adult cells could merely be the result of them fusing with other cell types, resulting in hybrids which could be harmful to the human body.

Adult stem cells from the brain and bone marrow of mice were mixed with mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells in a petri dish. The adult cells had fused with the embryonic ones, rather than having been reprogrammed in a way that would allow for potential therapeutic use.

Much media reporting on the findings was quick to dismiss the “hype” of adult stem cells, presenting the research as strengthening the case for harvesting stem cells from embryos — something pro-lifers oppose on the grounds the early stage embryo is destroyed in the process.

But according to one of the authors of the Florida study, Naohiro Terada, “our message was somehow distorted by media people.”

In an e-mail communication with Paul Lauzon, a researcher at the Canadian pro-life news website LifeSite, Terada pointed out that the researchers had used ES cells from mice, not from humans.

A number of the press reports failed to mention this.

Terada conceded that the results had “turned out to be a cautionary tale for scientific interpretation of some of the previous reports describing pluripotency [the capacity to give rise to most tissues] of adult stem cells.

“But, we never said adult stem cells are no longer hopeful, nor dangerous. If someone took our message that way, that is a misinterpretation,” he said.

Terada explained that the entire program at the University of Florida was aimed at “trying to prove therapeutic roles of adult stem cells (not human ES cells), and that is the central policy of our program.

“My lab’s standpoint is that there are still so many things to learn from mouse ES cells for basic understandings of stem cells. We do hope we can apply such knowledge obtained from mouse ES cells to a better use of human adult stem cells,” he added.

Molecular geneticist Edward Scott, head of the University of Florida’s stem cell research team, also has questioned some of the media coverage of the U.S. and British studies.

Scott was quoted by the publication Bioworld Today as saying he had been taken by surprise by “the spin that’s being put on both of our papers — that this is a major blow to adult stem cells, and therefore we need to expand the embryonic stem cell world. That’s perhaps pushing our data further than we should.”

He described the findings as a “cautionary tale” not just for adult stem cells, but for all stem cells such as those from embryos.

But readers of many of the press reports would have been forgiven for not reaching that conclusion.

A partial review of media coverage of the two studies shows that most reports suggested that the findings spelled the end of the “hyped” potential of adult stem cells, while strengthening the case for using ES cells.

The Scotsman, for example, spoke of “doubt over the potential of using adult stem cells instead of cells from embryos to treat serious diseases,” while CBS HealthWatch said the studies suggested that “adult stem cells do not have the same disease-fighting potential as stem cells from human embryos.”

According to Canada’s National Post, “… many people eagerly leapt on to the bandwagon” when studies began reporting promise in adult stem cells. It also quoted the director of the Canadian Stem Cell Network as saying the new studies “couldn’t have come at a better time.”

A widely reproduced Associated Press report quoted a U.S. researcher whose company is involved in ES cell work and destructive embryonic cloning as saying the two studies “call into question almost all of the data generated using adult stem cells.”

The Daily Telegraph called them a “serious setback” to hopes for adult stem cells, while another British daily, the Independent, headlined its version: “Study Weakens Anti-Abortionists’ Adult Tissue Claim.”

Not all coverage omitted skeptical reaction from some experts.

A BBC report included the doubts of a leading British researcher, Nick Wright, who said nothing in the new studies raised any doubts in his mind about the results of adult stem cell research in animals.

The new research had been carried out in a lab and not in living animals, stressed Wright, who has himself published findings that adult stem cells from bone marrow can transform themselves into tissue that could help treat damage in kidneys and livers.

The Washington Post, while saying the new studies “call into question a large body of research” highlighting the potential of adult stem cells, also cited Indiana State University biologist David Prentice as voicing skepticism about the studies.

Prentice said he believed the weight of evidence still favored the idea of adult stem cells’ ability to be transformed into other tissue.

And HealthScoutNews offered readers Terada’s cautionary note that both the Florida and Edinburgh research had taken place inside lab equipment, not in humans, and that the findings did not apply to all adult stem cells, only those mixed with embryonic ones.

Described as the “building blocks” of skin, muscle, bone and brain, stem cells are believed to hold potential cures for degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

President Bush last summer ruled out federal funding for ES cell research, except for work on more than 60 existing stem cell lines originating from embryos that had already been destroyed.

He also dedicated $250 million on research this year into adult stem cells taken from sources like bone marrow and placentas.

In the weeks ahead the U.S. Senate will debate whether to ban cloning to create human embryos for use in medical research.
Goodenough is the Pacific Rim bureau chief with CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Patrick Goodenough