Another Stem Cell Breakthrough

It did not quite make the front pages of most papers. In fact, it only made it to page 10 of today’s Herald Sun. But at least it got in. It is the story of the creation of an artificial liver using stem cells. Quite an important story actually. But the reason it is not making the front pages of the newspapers is because it comes from the wrong source of stem cells.

Had this breakthrough come from embryonic stem cells, the media would have been trumpeting this fact with relish. But because the stem cells came from umbilical cord blood, there was not much interest. Recall just a few weeks ago how front-page headlines reported on how scientists had supposedly obtained embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. Turns out it didn’t actually work that way, but the media was happy to give it a big run.

Thus we are witnessing yet another example of how segments of the media and parts of the scientific community are playing up one source of stem cells – human embryos – while playing down another source.

Writing in the October 31, 2006 Weekly Standard, Wesley J. Smith also makes this point. He notes how the non-embryonic source of the stem cells resulted in such scanty coverage: “This made their scientific achievement politically incorrect. A story that doesn’t validate the stem-cell mantra that embryonic stem cells offer the ‘best hope’ for future cures isn’t worth much attention. Even the most important adult or umbilical cord blood stem-cell breakthroughs usually receive only minor, inside-the-paper coverage. This is the primary reason why so many people still don’t know about the many advances being made on a continual basis in human research with ethical, adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells.”

The actual story of the liver creation goes like this: “Two scientists from Newcastle University, Nico Forraz and Colin McGuckin, have built dime-sized human livers using stem cells found in umbilical cord blood. The livers are already sufficient for use in drug testing – perhaps in place of using some animals and humans as research subjects. The scientists believe that within five years, stem-cell generated liver tissue could be sufficiently perfected for use in treating human diseases caused by injury, disease, and alcohol abuse. Perhaps in 15 years, the technique could even be employed to manufacture whole human livers suitable for transplantation.”

Yet this incredible scientific development has been getting very little media coverage. Says Smith, “Indeed, if this new breakthrough had been accomplished with embryonic stem cells instead of umbilical cord blood stem cells, the headlines would have been enormous. The second paragraph of the stories would have accused President Bush of holding up potentially life-saving cures. Notable scientists and bioethicists would have been touting the new dawn of regenerative medicine that was coming into being, despite Bush’s resistance. Instead, we hear the sound of silence – thanks to the news blockade that doesn’t care much about stem-cell breakthroughs unless they come from destroyed embryos.”

With the Federal Government due to decide on cloning and stem cell research next week, there is all the more reason for this sort of news to be getting out far and wide.

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