Embryonic Stem Cell Cures a Long Way Off, Experts Warn

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:05 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - A leading British medical journal has published an editorial warning against the "hype" surrounding recent advances in stem cell research. The editorial notes that at a recent public debate in London, experts predicted that safe and effective treatments for diseases were at least a decade away.

The Lancet's warning is the latest attempt by medical experts -- including many who support embryonic stem cell (ESC) research -- to dampen what they say are unrealistic expectations that stem cells will soon provide cure a range of diseases.

Last month South Korean researchers said they had succeeded in producing stem cell lines from cloned human embryos, a major breakthrough in a field whose proponents depict as science's exciting new frontier but whose opponents call immoral because embryos are destroyed in the process.

The Lancet noted that "numerous sensationalist headlines" had greeted the news from Korea.

The journal does not oppose ESC research, but pointed to "major practical and ethical issues" and said much more research was needed "before clinical trials become widespread."

In the drive to experiment on human embryos, different countries have considered allowing scientists to obtain the cells from varied sources -- from unwanted embryos left over after IVF treatment; from embryos created by IVF specifically for the purpose of providing cells; or from cloned embryos.

In each case, the embryos are destroyed, making the research anathema to pro-lifers.

The Lancet also published a comment by Prof. Neil Scolding, a scientist at Bristol University involved in work with "adult" stem cells - those from non-embryonic sources such as bone marrow.

Scolding wrote that there was a growing appreciation of the hazards associated with embryonic stem cells, as seen in abnormalities in cloned mammals and other problems.

He said it was unarguable that the human embryo was alive and human, and questioned the ethics of "ending the life of one human being for the potential benefit of others."

Scolding pointed to recent reported successes with adult stem cells, saying "the next few years, not decades, will show whether adult stem cell treatments are to join the mainstream therapeutic arsenal."

The campaign to promote ESC is strongly supported by groups lobbying for people suffering from disorders like diabetes and neurological diseases like Parkinson's.

Each reported advance in the field is hailed as a step closer to cures.

After news broke of the South Korean stem cell breakthrough, the Genetics Policy Institute (GPI) in Florida said the scientist heading the Korean team, Hwang Woo-suk, "has brought humankind to the threshold of potentially life-saving regenerative medicine research."

An editorial in the Korea Herald said Hwang's achievement "is giving new hope to millions of diabetics and sufferers of spinal injuries, and many other hitherto incurable diseases, all over the world."

Hwang himself, as he received an award from a GPI-hosted stem cell summit in Texas at the weekend, told the gathering: "We are within reach of our goal. Hope is on the horizon."

When the U.S. House of Representatives last month passed legislation seeking to end the administration's restrictions on federal funding for ESC research, the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research issued a statement headlined "Patients Win Big on Capitol Hill."

The House vote, said the coalition, "gives hope to millions of patients throughout the nation."

The Lancet is the second major British journal to look at the question of alleged "hype" surrounding ESC cell research in recent weeks.

Shortly before the London debate on May 25, experts writing in the British Medical Journal said in an editorial: "News reports and promotional material on websites\super \nosupersub often convey the impression that this therapy is safe and immediately\super \nosupersub or imminently available."

"Large hurdles still need to be overcome to\super \nosupersub ensure safety and efficacy," the authors cautioned. "These will require substantial\super \nosupersub further investment and research."

The experts warned that "the premature use of stem cell therapy could put many patients at risk" of viral diseases unless safety systems were in place.

They said the race to be the first to produce cell lines for therapy could compromise safety for those receiving the treatment.

At the debate in London, entitled "Stem Cell Research: Hope or Hype?" the head of the Center for Bioethics and Public Policy -- a Christian think tank -- argued in favor of adult stem cells.

"Adult stem cells are being used for research and are already treating thousands of people for many diseases," said Prof. Nigel Cameron, who is also president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"They raise no ethical problems," Cameron said. "Embryonic stem cell research, which destroys human embryos, has been hyped as the cure for the future, but there is hardly any evidence that it will work.""

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow