News of a cloned human embryo re-ignited a smoldering debate. That wasn't the researchers' intention. They wanted to focus on the prospects of medical therapies involving stem cells derived from cloned human embryos.
The real focus, though, should be on the hype — if not scam — of embryonic stem cell research.
Advanced Cell Technology's alleged breakthrough was announced, oddly enough, not in a scientific forum, but on NBC's Sunday morning program Meet the Press.
"But first: a very significant development in the world of biotechnology. U.S. News & World Report is reporting this morning scientists have successfully engineered the world's first cloned human embryo," was host Tim Russert's dramatic introduction.
It's now clear why ACT opted for the classic junk science trick of "science by press release." Had ACT's announcement been made before scientists, they might have burst out laughing.
It's not clear that ACT "cloned" an embryo.
ACT added adult cells to human eggs. The goal was to impart the adult cell's genes to eggs spurred to divide. Some of the eggs divided once or twice.
But an egg can divide a few times without making any use of the adult cell's genes. ACT produced no evidence that the genes of the adult cells were successfully incorporated into the dividing eggs. So the dividing eggs could hardly be called "embryos."
Dartmouth University professor Ronald M. Green told The New York Times that he prefers the term "cleaving eggs."
While a human embryo probably will be cloned one day — scientists already have cloned cows and sheep — this announcement was premature. The hype makes the failed experiment look like the biological equivalent of 1989's cold fusion scam.
The un-breakthrough illustrates why the public should be skeptical of stem cell researchers bearing gifts.
ACT noted in its media release that, "While numerous human embryonic stem cell lines are now in existence, they are of little value in human transplantation, as they would be rejected by a patient as foreign."
Translation? Assuming it's possible to produce medical therapies from embryonic stem cells, a cloned embryo of you would need to be created to derive stem cells your body wouldn't reject for immunologic reasons.
This key point — obvious to any scientist who gives the matter any thought — was largely overlooked (omitted?) in last summer's debate over federal funding of research with embryonic stem cells.
The reason is obvious. The need for cloned human embryos probably is the nail in the coffin for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Human cloning is opposed by a wide and bipartisan margin on Capitol Hill.
But stem cell researchers are desperate for taxpayer financing. They are using limited monies raised in the capital markets and are concerned this funding is insufficient and may eventually disappear. Investors are learning that the prospects for financial returns from stem cell research are far off — perhaps decades or more.
As stem cell researchers clamor for federal funding, they will say and do anything to get the public to pressure Congress and the Bush administration.
Their favorite ploys are dangling the carrot of medical therapies before a hopeful public and hyping research "breakthroughs."
As with the human embryo cloning announcement, "breakthrough" claims must be scrutinized carefully.
Healthy skepticism is also warranted over the prospects of medical therapies from stem cell research.
During the last 30 years, the federal government spent about $40 billion on cancer research. Although some progress has been made — notably in treating childhood leukemia and testicular cancer — the research has been disappointing.
The University of Chicago's John Bailar pointed out in the New England Journal of Medicine, "some 35 years of intense effort focused largely on improving [cancer] treatment must be judged a qualified failure."
Developing cancer treatments should be somewhat less challenging than developing medical therapies from stem cells. Killing or controlling cancer cells is probably easier than creating and then controlling stem cells.
Given the decades and billions spent on largely futile cancer research, imagine the time and resources required to tackle the much more difficult task of stem cell therapies.
This is not to say that stem cell research should be forsaken. But it should probably be conducted with private, not public money. Taxpayers are a bottomless well — a favorite source for funds for under-productive and unaccountable scientists.
In contrast, private investors will demand assurances that their investments aren't being wasted. They won't be fooled by cloned embryos that aren't.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).