October 17, 2004

Stem cell pop quiz

By: Daniel Allott

By now most Americans have heard of stem-cell research. Sadly, the general public remains largely misinformed about this controversial topic, and, as expected, many politicians have positioned themselves to benefit from this ignorance.

How much do you know? Here’s a short quiz.

Question 1: What diseases or illnesses have embryonic stem-cells been used to treat or cure?

Answer: None.

Question 2: What diseases or illnesses have adult stem-cells been used to treat or cure?

Answer: Adult stem-cells have been used to grow new heart tissue in patients suffering from heart disease, and are being used to treat cancer victims, the paralyzed, arthritis suffers, and many others.

Question 3: How many years away do most researchers feel we are from realizing any of the potential benefits of embryonic stem-cell research?

Answer: At least 10 to 15.

Question 4: What are some of the side effects of embryonic stem-cell research not found in adult stem-cell research?

Answer: Tumor formation, immune rejection, and death of donor.

Question 5: What was the amount of federal funding provided for stem-cell research by the Bush administration last year?

Answer: $200 million.

Even for those of us who thought we understood stem-cell research, these answers are eye-opening.

To clarify, stem-cells are primitive cells, from which all of the organs of the body develop. Stem-cells have two main characteristics: 1) they have the ability to reproduce themselves over a long period of time without changing; and 2) they have the capability to produce other types of cells such as brain, muscle, and lung, to name a few. Embryonic stem-cells are taken from a human embryo, often through the process of cloning, which results in the death of the embryo. Adult stem-cells are obtained from bone marrow, cord blood, and a variety of organs. Obtaining adult stem-cells does not result in the death of the donor.

While John Kerry alleges that the president has “enacted a far-reaching ban on stem-cell research,” causing the sick to “look to the future with fear,” he promises that a Kerry presidency would end Bush’s “battle against science” and pursue the cures and treatments that are “right at our fingertips.” Not only is this rhetoric grossly exaggerated, some of it is plainly incorrect.

Not only do most media misstate the Bush Administration’s stance by alleging that it opposes stem-cell research generally, or that it has enacted an extensive prohibition on federal funding for stem-cell research, they’ve also been guilty of overstating the promises of embryonic stem-cell research.

The truth is that we are many years, indeed maybe decades, away from realizing any of the possible fruits of embryonic stem-cell research. What’s indicative is that private investors have mostly stayed away from backing embryonic stem-cell research, choosing to focus their financial investments on promising adult stem-cell remedies that are much closer to fruition. If embryonic stem-cell research had real and imminent possibilities, private investors would be lined up to pour capital into research and development in hope of realizing the real and imminent profits.

What’s more, by neglecting to report on the many medical breakthroughs that have taken place as a result of adult stem-cell research, the media have failed in their obligation to the public.

Opinion polls reveal both the media’s obfuscation and the public’s confusion about stem-cell research.

Gallup and Pew polls in 2002 indicated that about 60 percent of respondents were in favor of using federal funds for stem-cell research. Thirty percent were opposed while only about 3 to 4 percent said it would “depend.”

Last month, an Economist/YouGov poll asked the question more broadly: “Do you favor or oppose stem-cell research?” again without making any distinctions. Sixty-eight percent of respondents were in favor, while 15 percent were opposed. Of Republicans, 57 percent said they favored stem-cell research, while 29 percent opposed it.

In truth, hardly anyone opposes funding for certain types of stem-cell research–those involving adult stem-cells. Many people, however, do not want their taxes funding embryonic or fetal stem-cell research, which involve the destruction of human embryos.

These polls fail to make this simple distinction, and many embryonic stem-cell advocates–politicians and media alike–have subsequently exploited these types of one-dimensional polls to bolster their claim that most Americans support the research. The Economist, ardently pro-embryonic stem-cell research, used its poll to suggest that those opposed to stem-cell research, i.e. President Bush and American social conservatives, are outside the mainstream.

Other polls reveal that when the public understands the differences and can make distinctions between the various types of stem-cell research, the majority opposes federal funding of embryonic experimentation. In an August poll conducted by Wilson Research Strategies, 53 percent of respondents said they “opposed using tax dollars to pay for the kind of stem cell research that requires the killing of human embryos,” while only 38 percent said that they support this research. At the same time, 74 percent of Americans said that they “support using tax dollars to pay for the kind of stem cell research that does not require the killing of human embryos,” while only 20 percent opposed this.

These polls indicate just how much perception matters, especially in the areas of science and bioethics, where the public generally prefers straightforward, bottom-line explanations to complex issues. If Democrats can continue to portray President Bush and Republicans as anti-stem-cell research, they may be able to secure the votes of the millions of Americans and their loved ones suffering from the debilitating effects of the diseases which stem-cell research is purported to someday be able to alleviate or cure. In a close race, these votes could matter.

Daniel Allott, a recent graduate of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, is a policy analyst for a DC-area non-profit.