The embryonic stem cell research lobby must think the rest of us are pretty gullible.

That’s the only reason I can think of to explain all the hoopla about a new study touted as a “breakthrough” representing an “end run” around the heated political debate over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (search).

“Harvard University scientists announced they've discovered a way to fuse adult skin cells with embryonic stem cells, a promising breakthrough that could lead to the creation of useful stem cells without first having to create and destroy human embryos,” reported The Associated Press on Aug. 22.

Accepting the study results at face value, it appears that the researchers were able to fuse adult skin cells with embryonic stem cells to produce hybrid cells that seemingly behaved like embryonic stem cells.

Production of the hybrid cells may very well be a novel finding worthy of publication. But it’s not clear at all that this experiment amounts to a “promising breakthrough” that could eliminate the moral and ethical concerns underlying the debate over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

The researchers stated in their write-up that “a substantial technical barrier remains before hybrid cells could be used for therapeutic purposes: specifically the elimination of the embryonic stem cell chromosomes.”

In other words, it’s not sufficient to simply fuse adult cells with embryonic stem cells; it’s also necessary to then remove the embryonic stem cell genetic material from the hybrid cell — and hope that the hybrid cell keeps behaving like an embryonic stem cell.

The researchers have not yet figured out how to remove the embryonic stem cell chromosomes from the hybrid cells, nor do they know what will happen when the chromosomes are removed. The researchers have merely produced hybrid cells that, so far as they know, are useless.

This is hardly a scientific “breakthrough” and it is certainly no “end run” around the raging moral controversy, as the Washington Post characterized the news in an Aug. 24 editorial.

The researchers wrote, “If [the removal of the embryonic stem cell chromosomes] can be performed without the loss of reprogramming activity, these approaches may circumvent some of the logistical and societal concerns surrounding [embryonic stem cell research].”

The political upshot of the researchers’ statement was expanded upon by the Post editorial: “If the technique becomes viable, it could yield genetically individualized stem cells for patients with a range of diseases for which stem cell therapies might be compelling. And critically, it could be done without either destroying anything plausibly considered a human life or by creating a cloned embryo. It would be a wonderful development if science simply outstripped the current debate over the morality and ethics of this potentially lifesaving research.”

Regardless of all the “ifs,” there are two fatal problems with this train of thought.

First, the creation of the hybrid cells requires embryonic stem cells and, to date, the only technique for obtaining embryonic stem cells involves the destruction of embryos.

Next, although some researchers have speculated about the possibility of extracting embryonic stem cells (search) from embryos in a nondestructive manner, this is an unproven idea that will take many years to research. Moreover, researching the idea will require experimentation on live embryos that will likely be just as ethically and morally controversial as embryonic stem cell research itself.

It certainly would be wonderful if science “outstripped” the political debate over stem cell research, but the Harvard study is a long way from accomplishing that.

Moreover, despite rather obvious and contradictory facts, the Harvard study is being positioned in the media as a way to do embryonic stem cell research without harming embryos — and the timing seems entirely political.

Last May, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would circumvent President Bush’s limits on the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. The Senate is slated to take up the bill in September and supporters say they have the votes to pass it.

But President Bush says he will veto the measure and bill supporters lack a two-thirds majority in Congress to override it — so far. All bets are off, though, if the embryonic stem cell research lobby can get away with morphing woefully premature and limited research results into “miracle cures around the corner.”

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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