Stem cell lines: Misrepresentation of information in report

Published in The Hindu on January 25, 2007

In what may appear as yet another attempt by the Bush administration to misrepresent scientific information to prevent any expansion of federal funding for newly derived stem cell lines, the White House Domestic Policy Council report — Advancing stem cell science without destroying human life — published earlier this month is no different.

The report, citing several studies that show the usefulness of adult stem cells, comes at a time when the House has already passed legislation to fund newly derived embryonic stem cell lines (The Hindu, January 18, 2007). The bill would next go to the Senate for voting.

Brought to light

The latest issue of Science journal has brought to light the way the report has misrepresented information in one of the papers it has cited to sway public opinion in its favour.

A paper published in Science in August 2005 by Chad A. Cowan and others from Harvard University showed the ability of reprogramming adult cells to produce hybrid stem cells. It is “an alternative route for creating genetically tailored hES (human embryonic stem cell) lines for use in the study and treatment of disease,” the report quotes the authors as saying in the journal article.

So does the study actually make the use of embryonic stem cells redundant? No, it does not. “Our work directly involves the use of human embryonic stem cells … [and] is precisely the type of research that is currently being banned by the President’s policy,” the authors note with distress in the latest issue of Science. “We are surprised to see our work … used [by the administration] to support arguments that research involving human embryonic stem cells is unnecessary.”

That the report selectively quotes from Cowan’s paper becomes very apparent as the abstract right in the beginning of the 2005 issue of Science clearly states that the researchers have used embryonic stem cells to produce the hybrid stem cells. More embryonic stem cells would be required for Cowan’s kind of work. Unfortunately, President George Bush’s refusal to fund newly derived embryonic stem cells posts a big hurdle for such work being done.

More so, as the number of cell lines approved for federal funding is no longer 78. Many estimate it to be no more than 20-25, if not fewer. Even those cell lines have been found to be contaminated as they were grown on animal feeder cells.

Double standards

The White House adopts a cautious approach, but only when it suits the administration, before fully and immediately accepting the findings of a research work. While it takes this route when describing some researchers’ work on harvesting embryonic stem cells from dead embryos, which the administration still considers as not being ethically permissible, the cautious approach is thrown to the winds while describing the results of a paper published in the journal Cell.

The paper in Cell by Kazutoshi Takahashi and Shinya Yamanaka of the Institute of Frontier Medical Sciences, Kyoto University is on reprogramming adult cells into pluripotent stem cells. Noting that the authors have been able to reprogramme adult cells using four factors, the report strengthens its stand by quoting them as saying in Eurek Alert: “… may eventually allow the creation of pluripotent cells directly from somatic cells of patients.” Dr. Yamanaka’s cautionary note, “we still do not know whether the four factors can generate pluripotent cells from human somatic cells. … It also remains unclear whether iPS [induced pluripotent stem]  cells can do everything that embryonic stem cells can,” is found in Eurek Alert though.

As the stage is set for the Senate to vote on the bill soon and a possible vetoing by the President for the second consecutive time, the spin doctors are pulling out all the stops for making any expansion of federal funding for newly derived embryonic stem cell lines appear as not the right policy. If it was the ethical platform that was mainly used earlier, the administration is now equipping itself with scientific data — mostly misrepresented — to strengthen its position.