By Tom Still


MADISON – Opponents of human embryonic stem-cell research are fond of saying it has yet to produce any cures. That’s like asking a fourth-grader why he doesn’t have a job, given that it’s been only nine years since UW-Madison scientist James Thomson figured out how to keep stem cells alive long enough to study them.


On the opposite extreme, excited proponents of human embryonic stem-cell research helped bring on the “where are the cures?” chatter by suggesting the end of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and more was just around the corner. That’s hyperbole, too, even though the potential for stem-cell research over time is enormous.


For reasons that have more to do with politics than science, human embryonic stem-cell research attracts claims – pro and con – that stretch the imagination, if not the truth. Separating hype from hope becomes a challenge, not only for policymakers and press, but for ordinary citizens. Recent disclosures about research breakthroughs provide a timely example.


Three teams of scientists announced in June they had coaxed ordinary mouse skin cells to become what are, in essence, embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying mouse embryos in the process. The scientists reported on two ways of turning back the biological clocks of skin cells growing in laboratory dishes. Thus rejuvenated, the mouse cells gave rise to “daughter” cells with the ability to become all of the bones, tissues and organs that make up a mouse.


“An end to stem cell debate?” asked one newspaper headline. Not exactly.


For starters, a mouse is not a primate is not a human, so there are layers upon levels of research necessary to determine if the same process could work with human skin cells. Second, the research involved activating and deactivating specific genes – a practice that could make it too dangerous to try in human clinical settings, even if it worked in a lab.


As one of the participating researchers said, “A human is not a mouse, so a lot more work has to be done.”


Those same researchers, which included teams from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called on Congress and President Bush to lift the six-year-old federal ban on funding new stem-cell lines. They noted it would be a mistake for anyone to put too much faith in one breakthrough, even their own.


That didn’t prevent opponents of human embryonic stem-cell research from urging Congress and the president to focus on the new approach to the exclusion of everything else.


In his latest veto of a bill to increase funding for human embryonic stem-cell research, President Bush did precisely that. Bush suggested the stem-cell debate would fade away if only Congress would pay for other ways of deriving stem cells. He ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to promote research into stem cells that have the ability to regenerate cell types and body tissues – without use of embryonic stem cells.


The truth of the matter is that Congress and the president should be supporting multiple types of research into stem cells, whether they come from human embryos (donated by parents through in vitro clinics), adult stem cells (that research began in the 1960s) or other sources. Private dollars are being spent on all of those pathways because no one knows for sure what will yield the best results.


Science works best when scientists pursue a variety of related routes. Researchers who work with human embryonic stem cells learn from those who work with adult stem cells, and adult stem-cell researchers learn from those working with embryonic cells. The same kind of knowledge exchange takes place across disciplinary lines, as well. Toxicologists learn from development biologists, who learn from geneticists, and so on.


The next time a news story breaks about a “new” way to create human stem cells, join in the celebration because it’s a step forward for science. But don’t believe it will trump what science already knows about how human stem cells work, or immediately replace known processes and practices.


Stem-cell research today is built on the hope that science will continue to learn more until diagnostics, treatments, improved drugs and even cures are possible. Until then, don’t get caught up in the hype of the breakthrough-of-the-week.


Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.