What does embryonic stem cell research have to do with the space shuttle? Seemingly nothing. Dig deeper, though. Whatever NASA may claim, there's little the shuttle can do that unmanned spaceships cannot - at much lower costs. But NASA knows what sci-fi writers always have, that we're enamored of manned space flight. The shuttle's main mission is maintaining NASA's prestige and budget.
Yet if the shuttle has proved to have little use, ESCs have so far had none. They've never been tested on a human, much less treated one. And like the shuttle, there's a far superior alternative. Culled from numerous body tissues as well as umbilical cords and placenta, these are generally referred to as "adult stem cells." Yet the value of ASCs are routinely downplayed or even ignored precisely because ESCs, like the shuttle, are of such marginal value to the human race but of such tremendous value to individual reputations and budgets.
Which brings us to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's support of new legislation (and his break with the Bush administration) that would tremendously expand federal aid for ESC research. (Note: one of the myths surrounding ESC research is that it currently receives no federal support, while another goes even further to say such research is illegal.)
Frist's position carries much weight, we're told, not just because he's the highest-ranking Republican in Congress, but also because he's a physician. Actually, that makes him as much a specialist on stem cells as a plumber is on aquatic chemistry. A half hour of reading will give you more knowledge about these cells than the average doctor possesses. In that short time you might learn that ASCs are CURRENTLY used in over 250 human clinical trials and are treating over 80 different diseases.
ESC researchers sniff that this is only because their field is newer, but actually research on both types of cell date back to the 1950s. ESCs aren't playing catch-up; they're falling further behind.
Oddly, although Frist is a heart transplant physician he seems clueless that some of the most exciting ASC work directly involves his field. As I have written on this website, ASCs have been used to induce either muscle or vessel growth in human hearts in hundreds of patients in labs throughout the world. Next month, Brazil begins stem cell experiments involving 1,200 people for four different heart problems.
Another myth that Frist propagated in his "breakaway" speech is that "embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide." In fact, ALL that ESCs have is promise. That's why advocates feel obliged to claim they'll eventually cure every disease from Alzheimer's to acne. But again, had Frist done his homework he'd know that three years ago scientists began changing ASCs into ALL three types of cells the body produces.
Since then, lab after lab has used various forms of ASCs to make all those cell types, but to ESC advocates it's vital you not know this. They also go bonkers if you mention researchers are developing at least four different methods of creating ESCs without destroying embryos, as the June issue of Wired documented. They want that money NOW!
Ironically, the clamor for massively-increased public funding for ESC research is precisely because their practical applications, if any, lie many years in the future while those of ASCs are here and now. The media may go gaga over ESC researchers' pie-in-the-sky claims, but private investors know better. On the other hand, when the government has injected funding into ESC research such as happened with California's Proposition 71, huge fortunes were made or - in the case of Bill Gates - simply expanded.
This isn't to say ASC research NEEDS public funding either. But we've long accepted that deserving medical research should get public dollars. ASC researchers could easily handle far more grant money than they currently receive, without using it to gold-plate the operating instruments. As I've earlier written, prominent Harvard researcher Dr. Denise Faustman may well have found a cure for type 1 diabetes involving ASCs but cannot proceed with testing for lack of money, even as the nation's largest juvenile diabetes organization has refused to fund her but instead lobbies for more ESC research.
Meanwhile, the federal medical research budget has virtually stopped expanding so that inherently more spending for anything means less for other things; more for ESCs means less for ASCs. Why rob Producing Peter to pay Potential Paul?
You may have noticed no mention herein of the moral baggage that also accompanies ESCs. This is not a failure to realize it exists. It's merely that there's no point discussing it if ESCs have no obvious advantage over their ASC counterparts and anyway we'll be getting ESC without ripping apart embryos.
The case against ESCs is scientific. If the technology has a fraction of the true potential its backers claim, the market will fund it. But if you're an investor who really believes the hype, I've got a space shuttle to sell you.
Michael Fumento (email@example.com) is author of BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing our World, a fellow at Hudson Institute, and a nationally syndicated columnist with Scripps Howard News Service.