Alternative Sources of Stem Cell Truth

White House Misrepresents Potential of Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells

New white paper distorts potential of amniotic-fluid stem cells and obscures the deleterious effects of President Bush’s stem cell policy.

The White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC) yesterday released “Advancing Stem Cell Science Without Destroying Human Life,” a white paper that misrepresents the potential of discovering and using alternatives to embryonic stem cells. The paper exaggerates the potential of reprogramming adult cells to behave like embryonic stem cells, distorts the potential of recently discovered amniotic-fluid stem cells, and obscures the deleterious effects of President Bush’s stem cell policy. This misrepresentation of science is a last ditch effort by opponents of embryonic stem cell research who have already failed to make their case to Congress and the American people.

The White House DPC exaggerates the potential of adult cell reprogramming and other alternative methods of obtaining pluripotent stem cells. The white paper refers to research into adult cell reprogramming as “one of the most promising possibilities” and says that “there is a gathering consensus among experts, thanks to technical advances, that today’s heated controversies over research that harms embryos could fade in the future.” Yet the DPC cites only two papers in its report—one working with human cells and one with mouse cells—neither of which has been reproduced.

This type of research has been extensively studied for years, and the scientific community has repeatedly found that these newly created cells are not truly pluripotent. In fact, this type of research was referred to as “pie in the sky” by National Institutes of Health (NIH) stem cell expert James Battey almost a year after the study on reprogramming human adult cells was published.

Alternative means of deriving pluripotent stem cells remain unproven, and even if these results were to be verified, they would require tremendous amounts of time and resources to understand how to efficiently isolate and manipulate them. There is no “gathering consensus” among experts that technical advances will eliminate this controversy, although there may be a consensus that the controversy will fade because the widespread support of the American people and Congress for this research cannot be ignored forever.

The DPC also erroneously suggests that the recently discovered amniotic stem cells could replace embryonic stem cells. The paper claims that “Dr. Atala and his team [who published research on the new stem cells] believe that these amniotic stem cells may be fully as flexible as embryonic stem cells.” In fact, scientists across the country, including Dr. Atala, have said that these stem cells will not replace embryonic stem cells, and likely cannot differentiate into as many types of cells. These new stem cells will also be less useful for answering questions about early human development—one of the most promising potentials of embryonic stem cell research. Furthermore, Dr. Atala’s study has also not yet been reproduced; learning how to use amniotic-fluid stem cells efficiently and effectively will still take many, many years.

Meanwhile, researchers are already experienced in isolating and manipulating embryonic stem cells, and there is no doubt of their pluripotence. Researchers have shown the promise of embryonic stem cells by used them in laboratory animals to treat paralysis, slow vision loss, and reverse some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. They have used human embryonic stem cells to create cardiovascular precursor cells that could lead to treatments for heart diseases, T-cells that could lead to a cure for AIDS, and insulin-secreting cells that could lead to a cure for diabetes. And there is a ready supply of 400,000 excess embryos stored in fertility clinics around the country.

Yet despite the president’s rigid, outdated policy, the DPC report also attempts to claim that these embryonic stem cell successes are signs of the benefits of the current policy, rather than proof of the overwhelming potential of this research. The DPC claims that, “the dramatic advances in stem cell research since 2001 are evidence that the president’s balanced policy is working.”

The current federal stem cell policy has actually hurt our global competitiveness in stem cell research, allowing other countries to close the research gap. Federally funded researchers are restricted to 21 older, out-dated stem cell lines, while newer lines created at Harvard University have proven three times as popular among scientists, despite the lack of federal funding for research using them.

The DPC cites a study by Woen-Smith and McCormick to argue that the majority of stem cell research utilizes NIH approved lines, but the report fails to mention is that the very same study shows that from 2002 to 2004 the percent of international stem cell papers published by U.S. researchers decreased from 33 percent to 25 percent. Stem cell researchers believe that this trend will continue in part because, “many scientists in the United States are spending too much time trying to develop techniques that would allow them to create embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo.”

The President’s actions have slowed stem cell research in this country, and it’s time for Congress to update our policy and give our scientists the best possible tools in the race for life-saving cures.

Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor and Professor of Medical Ethics and the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Sam Berger is a Researcher at the Center for American Progress.

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Jonathan D. Moreno

Senior Fellow

Sam Berger

Former Vice President, Democracy and Government Reform