Stem cell hopes distorted by ‘arrogance and spin’
Tim Radford, science editor
Monday September 5, 2005
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.”
Ã‚Â· 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.