Friday, June 27, 2014

Hype and Hope: Illuminating the Reality of Stem Cell Treatments

“Selling Stem Cells Honestly” is the headline this week over at the Biopolitical Times, which also says “it’s about time.”

The article appeared on the Internet site that is produced by the Center for Genetics and Society of Berkeley. The piece cites several recent efforts from within the stem cell community to highlight the risks of dubious, expensive stem cell treatments that are being offered domestically and internationally.

Pete Shanks
CGS photo
The article was written by Pete Shanks, who said the warnings are welcome. But Shanks, author of a book on human genetic engineering, added,
“A little perspective is called for, however: CIRM (the California stem cell agency) was sold to the public in 2004 with the strong implication that cures were imminent. The Proposition 71 Voters Guide argument in favor was presented by Cures for California, and the initiative was presented as ‘Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative.’ (It was also going to be an economic miracle.)
“Scientists led the way in talking about ‘life-saving cures’ and advocates campaigned under the slogan ‘Countdown to Cures.’  Professor and entrepreneur Irv Weissman (of Stanford) donned a white coat for commercials, presented himself as a doctor, and assured the TV audience: 
“’The chances for diseases to be cured from stem-cell research are high…. If the promise of stem-cell research comes true, we can hope for a single treatment with the right stem cells to cure diseases every family has.’”
Shanks continued,
“Of course, the claims of cures around the corner carefully avoided including a timetable. But in a report published two days after the election, Weissman told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“’If somebody comes up with a saleable product in five years, I'll be shocked. If we don't have lots of therapies in 20 years, I'll be even more shocked.’
“Right. There has been a decade of hype about the potential of stem cells. CIRM is approaching the end of its mandate — and money — and looking for more. All of a sudden, they are taking a more … realistic … line. But is it really any surprise than some patients are, well, impatient?” 
Shanks concluded,
 “It's excellent that more scientists are now publicly calling for oversight. Perhaps they will learn a broader lesson: Do not over-promise ‘cures’ in an effort to raise money. Or, as (Paolo) Bianco and Douglas Sipp, another long-time monitor of the field, argued in Nature last week:
“Sell help not hope.”
One final note: Shanks did praise a couple of scientists by name for their clear-eyed view of the stem cell treatments, including Paul Knoepfler of UC Davis. He blogs on the subject often and has authored a book aimed at the public that informs about stem cells in general an gives good advice about how to judge stem cell treatments. Additionally we should mention that when Weissman was head of the International Society for Stem Cell Research a few years back, it began an effort to inform the public about dubious stem cell treatments. The move ran afoul of companies that threatened legal action, and it was substantially toned down. Even if such efforts to inform the public are accurate and well-justified, the legal costs of defending them can run quite high. 
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