Leading Embryonic Stem Cell Researcher 'Misled' Lawmakers

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A leading Australian scientist is accused of misleading lawmakers about the source of stem cells credited with helping an injured rat walk again. The alleged deception apparently was part of an effort to play up the supposed benefits of embryonic stem cell research.

Pro-lifers and lawmakers cried foul, while Prime Minister John Howard is said to be deeply concerned about "the apparent misrepresentation" by Prof. Alan Trounson, Australia's leading proponent of the controversial research and a recipient of government funding to further the work.

Lawmakers facing a conscience vote on a bill to legalize embryonic stem cell research last week were shown supposed evidence of the cells' ability to help cure a crippled rat.

Trounson presented lawmakers with before-and-after video footage showing a white rat with hind-leg paralysis being able to walk again.

The creature had been treated, he was quoted as saying, with cells from "embryonic stem-cell lines registered by the U.S. administration."

But he has now conceded that the cells used in the Johns Hopkins University study were in fact not embryonic at all, but instead were cells taken from an aborted human fetus.

As such, said Dr. David van Gend of the ethics group Do No Harm, "they are more akin to adult cells, and any suggestion that this was an embryonic stem cell cure is simply false."

Van Gend first smelled a rat last week, and he issued a statement Thursday questioning Trounson's claims.

Trounson's admission came on Monday night, after days of questions from lawmakers and others.

Australia's federal parliament is debating legislation that would allow researchers to harvest stem cells from days-old human embryos left over from IVF treatment. The embryos would be destroyed in the process.

The cells used to treat the rat in the U.S. study would not be covered by the Australian legislation.

Trounson has led scientists lobbying for the Bill, while pro-lifers and other scientists have argued that "adult" stem cells are an effective and ethical alternative.


Van Gend said Trounson had twice misled lawmakers in last week's presentations.

Not only had he wrongly identified the cells used in the rat as embryonic in a "calculated deception" to win over members of parliament, he had also told them that such treatment had "never been done with adult stem cells."

This was untrue, said van Gend, citing a 2000 scientific study that found - in the words of the authors - "dramatic functional improvement and anatomical repair" in rats with spinal cord injury after adult stem cell transplants.

Similar work is now being done in human trials at an Australian hospital, where nerve cells from the nose of a volunteer paraplegic patient has been injected into his damaged spinal cord.

Other volunteers will undergo similar treatment in the study, with an independent assessment expected in three years' time.

Queensland neurologist Prof. Peter Silburn said Wednesday the adult cells being used in the clinical trial came from the patients themselves so as to avoid problems of rejection thought likely in the case of embryonic cells.

The other potential problem from embryonic cells, he added, was the fact that one in five rats treated with them in a Parkinson's disease study developed cancerous tumors.

Silburn said there had been a great deal of "one-sided" lobbying of lawmakers debating the bill, and claims made about embryonic stem cells simply weren't accurate, he said.

"I would like to see the legislation reviewed right now. There has been very lopsided information given to politicians who have made their decisions based on that information and in good faith, but I don't think they've got the whole picture," he said.

"Before they make decisions regarding legislation they're going to be accountable for, they should make responsible decisions based on all the information."

He also cautioned once again against giving the community unrealistic expectations about the ability of embryonic cells to cure a range of diseases.

Funding concern

News of Trounson's admission regarding the source of the cells used in the rat brought strong protests from lawmakers and others.

Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, who strongly opposes research on human embryos, said Trounson should give a full explanation.

"If we can't believe leading scientists, the major proponents, to give us the real truth ... how are we on behalf of society meant to form the right judgments?" he asked.

"Many people were sucked in by the video showing a rat being cured by embryonic stem cells," said Liberal lawmaker Christopher Pyne.

"This has been proven to be false," he added, saying adult stem cells were already benefiting human patients who have been treated with them.

A spokeswoman for Howard was quoted as saying the prime minister, too, was troubled.

While his support for the legislation was not affected by the development, she said, he was taking advice on whether it had any implications for federal funding approved earlier this year.

Howard last May announced the allocation of 43.5 million Australian dollars ($24.6 million) to a new stem cell research center to be headed by Trounson.

The scientist at the center of the row was unavailable for comment, but a colleague and fellow researcher, Prof. Martin Pera, told Australian media there had been no attempt to mislead anyone.

The germ cells from the fetuses were closely related to embryonic stem cells, he said.

There has been a published study on the use of embryonic stem cells to treat rats with spinal cord injury.

John McDonald and colleagues at the Washington University School of Medicine said in a report published in December 1999 that rats injected with the cells could stand again and walk within two weeks, although not perfectly.

By five weeks after the transplant, most of the transplanted cells had died off, however.

Van Gend said the McDonald study - "the best effort" yet using embryonic cells - had proven slightly better than no treatment at all.

The controversial rat video footage shown by Trounson was also used in the U.S. last year by lobbyists pushing President Bush to back funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The pro-life website Lifesite reported on July 26 last year that important information - the fact that the cells involved in the rat's treatment did not come from embryos - was being withheld, and that U.S. legislators were being manipulated.

See earlier stories:

US Adult Stem Cell Findings Re-Ignite Australia's Embryo Debate (June 21, 2002)
Australian Gov't Criticized For Stem Cell Research Funding (May 31, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow