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Stem cell hopes distorted by ‘arrogance and spin’

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Stem cell hopes distorted by ‘arrogance and spin’
Tim Radford, science editor
Monday September 5, 2005

The Guardian

A leading scientist who pushed for the controversial research into embryo stem cells will warn today that the challenges are so huge that any cures for disease lie a long way in the future.

Lord Winston, who pioneered fertility research in the UK, is to tell the British Association for the Advancement of Science, meeting in Dublin, that during the political campaign to push through legislation in 2001, some parliamentarians were led to believe that clinical treatments were “just around the corner”. Some of the lobbying came from patients’ groups, but it was stimulated by scientific observations.

“When disappointment sets in, as may be possible, we can expect a massive backlash by the ‘right to life’ groups, who are always ready to pounce when they perceive a chink in our arguments,” he will say. He singles out embryo stem cells as a case study in scientific arrogance and the dangers of “spinning” a good story.

Embryo stem cells are seen as medicine’s version of the magic tablecloth. In 40 weeks these microscopic agents turn a single fertilised egg into a complete human being of 100 trillion cells of nearly 300 varieties. They could be used for “personalised” medicine – to grow fresh heart tissue, repair the ravages of neurodegenerative diseases, or treat diabetes.

Britain is the first country in the west to authorise by law the use of embryos left over from fertility treatment for such research. Leading US scientists have come to the UK to join what Lord Winston calls “one of the most exciting areas in biology”. But, he says, embryonic stem cells may not be useful for a long time.

“I view the current wave of optimism about embryonic stem cells with growing suspicion. Embryonic stem cells replicate very slowly in culture, and it may well be that in the culture systems where you want to grow them the selective pressure is in favour of the faster growing cells, the ones of course which are most likely to be genetically abnormal,” he said.

Embryos showed a remarkable propensity to produce abnormal chromosomes, he said. Stem cells that had differentiated into one kind of tissue had been seen to change back again. If these were transplanted to a patient, they might cause harm.

Research into embryo stem cells could mean a clinical spin-off reasonably soon in cancer research, he said, but in their desperation to get legislation on to the statute books scientists may have convinced parliamentarians that therapy for Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions might be available in a few years.

In fact the natural life cycles of stem cells – 48 hours, or even 72 hours – posed huge problems. Lord Winston said that that length of time might mean the disease overtaking the patient. “That replication also means there will be faster growing cells in the same culture that will probably swamp the slower growing cells. And those cells that are growing faster are almost certainly not expressing genes in the ‘normal’ way.

“So I think there is a problem selecting the right cells. I think we are quite properly concerned with increasing caution – but [that] does imply we may have oversold this subject a bit too much.”

He said ethics should be an essential part of an undergraduate science course. “It happens in medical schools. It should happen [in science] because the issues are just as important.”

· A new study by the thinktank Demos warns that close ties between universities and business could stifle public debate and distort research. “We need to ask who is setting the agenda for science,” said James Wilsdon, one of the report’s authors.

7 Replies to “Stem cell hopes distorted by ‘arrogance and spin’

  1. 1
    Ben Z says:

    What foundation for ethics are they going to work off of?

  2. 2
    mtreat says:

    Lord Winston is purported to say: “we can expect a massive backlash by the ‘right to life’ groups, who are always ready to pounce when they perceive a chink in our arguments”.

    First, it would appear that this is quite a bit more than a “chink.” Second, it seems to me that there are some similarities between Darwinists and some stem cell scientists: they oversell their ideas and evidence and then react with vitriolic rhetoric when someone dares to call them on it.

  3. 3
    eswrite says:

    Did anyone else catch the irony? “Selective pressures” are poking holes in the holy grail of stem cell research. Priceless.

  4. 4
    hlwarren says:

    First off, Dr. Dembski wanted to highlight the idea of a case study in scientific arrogance, not the ethics of stem cell research. That being said, what does Intelligent Design contribute to the ethics of stem cell research? And how we talk about ethics scientifically? Isn’t there often a major component of sectarian religion involved? Which brings me to refine and repeat my question: What does Intellient Design contribute to the non-sectarian ethics of stem cell research?

    Also Lord Winston is reporting news that is rather old to me. This idea of stem cell results being a ways off is regularly reported on that bastion of liberalism Nation Public Radio

    Over selling ideas is not uniquely a property of Darwinists. Many who through youthful exuberance think they are working on the best thing since sliced bread over sell. It happens all the time in my line of work which is software engineering.

  5. 5
    Ben Z says:

    “What does Intellient Design contribute to the non-sectarian ethics of stem cell research?”

    Isn’t ethics sectarian, to the good, by nature? I’m not sure if an objective science would contribute to ethics.

  6. 6
    mtreat says:

    Why is it that we humans tend to attack the extreme of what someone says rather than what was actually said? hrwarren makes a point to say that “Over selling ideas is not uniquely a property of Darwinists.” Clearly, it would be silly to claim that Darwinists have a monopoly on overselling ideas — but that wasn’t what I said. I, like hlwarren, also work in software engineering and regularly see the greatest thing since “sliced bread” turn out to be just another slice of moldy bread — or at best a modest contribution to solving some aspect of the problem.

    Unfortunately for the Darwinists, Darwinism just happens to be an obvious example of overselling and arrogance. Darwinists continue to trumpet neo-darwinianism as the final, complete, uncontested explanation for the origin and development of all life — while never seriously responding to new discoveries in biochemistry and molecular biology regarding the complexity of life and the information encoded within the molecules of life. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to maintain credibility in the face of the realities being exposed as the black box of life is opened for all to see.

    Non-scientists intuitively see Darwinists as scrambling to rescue a deteriorating paradigm. Scientists from other branches of science (cosmology, biochemistry, molecular biology, information theory, complexity, etc.) are increasingly able to see the elephant in the room. The Darwinists will understandably be the last to recognize the elephant’s presence (if ever). Similar to the stem cell researcher that oversells the potential and the timeline regarding embryonic stem cell research, the Darwinists have so much to lose and so much at stake (reputation, peer acceptance, livelihood, grant money, etc.). There’s also the inherent difficulty of changing any deeply held paradigm; even the well-intentioned and courageous can find it well-nigh impossible.

  7. 7
    hlwarren says:

    This non-scientist does not see much of a rescueing scramble. There is quite alot of annoyance. A fair amount of rudeness. There is a very vocal, bullying, vitriolic minority, but I do not sense that Darwinism has been meaningfully challenged. But, the century is still young. Let’s not oversell the triumph of Intelligent Design.

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