Saturday, February 24, 2007

Fumento's Folly

Michael Fumento, best known for shoe-horning his right-wing views into factually incorrect "science" articles, just saw his low credibility take another hit.

Fumento claimed in the Feb. 8 issue of the Daily Standard that scientists have been covering up the "fact" that human adult stem cells have been proven as effective as embryonic stem cells into turning to the various specialized cells needed to treat diseases.

. . .Yet it's been virtually a state secret that for over five years researchers, beginning with a team headed by physician Catherine Verfaillie of the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute, have been reporting numerous types of adult stem cells (she used those from marrow) that in the lab could form mature cells from three germ layers. Experiments around the world have clearly shown that adult stem cells from one germ layer can be converted into those of another in a living human, such as those that have turned adipose tissue stem cells from the mesoderm germ layer into neuronal cells from the ectoderm germ layer. (It also produced bone; cartilage; skeletal; cardiac muscle; and blood cells among others but these are all mesodermal.). . .

That research has been found to be flawed, calling its conclusions into question
Adult Stem Cell Study Flawed, Panel Says

By JOSHUA FREED, Associated Press Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- A scientific panel says a 2002 study that suggested adult stem cells might be as useful as embryonic ones was flawed and its conclusions may be wrong, a finding that raises questions about the promise of a less controversial source for stem cells.
The research by Catherine Verfaillie at the University of Minnesota concluded that adult stem cells taken from the bone marrow of mice could grow into an array of biological tissues, including brain, heart, lung and liver.
So far only embryonic stem cells, which are commonly retrieved by destroying embryos at an early stage of development, are known to hold such regenerative promise. Many scientists believe they might one day be used to treat certain diseases and other conditions.
Opponents of stem cell research seized on the 2002 findings as evidence that stem cell science could move forward without destroying embryos. But Verfaillie has acknowledged flaws in parts of the study after inquiries from the British magazine New Scientist, which first publicized the questions last week. . .

Even if that research were flawless, it still wouldn't prove that adult stem cells are useful for human therapy. The AP article mentions a significant fact Fumento omitted: Verfaillie's experiments were performed with bone marrow cells from mice. Considering how many times we've cured cancer in mice, only to have the treatments fail in humans, that fact is quite pertinent.

Fumento has for years been painting a fantasy world in which human adult human stem cells are as useful as human embryonic stem cells for treating diseases. This idea pleases Fumento's right-wing audience, much of which is morally opposed to research with embryonic stem cells. I've talked to top stem cell scientists for years, and they tell a different story. The scientific view at this point is that for certain uses, adult stem cells may work okay, but for others you may need embryonic stem cells. That at least is what the top scientists in the field say; Fumento has been busily distorting and cherry-picking to push his own false picture of science.

I have no moral objection to research with human embryonic stem cells. But I'd be extremely happy if adult stem cells were found suitable for treating the diseases embryonic stem cell research is targeting. It would save lives without the political/ethical qualms, and if "cloning" or somatic cell nuclear transfer is not necessary, ethical problems from seeking human eggs would be eradicated.

But it's unethical journalism to falsely portray this field just to please one's audience, as Fumento routinely does. Fumento can only be excused on two grounds: one, he's a political activist and not a journalist, or two, he simply doesn't understand what he's writing about. A reporter doesn't have to be trained as a scientist to be a good science writer. But science writers must study the issues and get an understanding of the principles of science, and go wherever the data leads them. This data-driven mind-set is fundamentally different than that of the political advocacy world Fumento inhabits. And politicized science produces error-strewn work that true scientists and their followers can only mock. Fumento, after all, wrote on page 10 of his book BioEvolution that DNA is a two-stranded molecule of protein.

Conservatives who get their facts from Fumento are setting themselves up for a pratfall. And those looking for cures for their diseases from adult stem cells shouldn't read Fumento for guidance. They'll only wind up with false hope and crushed expectations.

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