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Reckless Science Leads to Rash Conclusions in Stem Cell Tragedy

by Kirsten Sanford, Feb 27 2009

Last week’s news of the teenage boy with spinal and brain tumors resulting from stem cell therapy broke just in time. A failure for stem cell therapy in the eyes of the media. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research now have new ammunition against the recent FDA decision to allow clinical embryonic stem cell trials to progress.

But, would they still have the ammo if the story had been told a different way? What if the researchers hadn’t used the words “neural stem cells” in the title of their paper? Maybe a tale of reckless research methods would be better for everyone.

Here are the facts as we know them:
1)    The boy received injections of fetal neural cells.
2)    The boy has tumors.
3)    The tumors are derived from the injected cells.

It looks like an open and shut case against this therapy treatment, but it’s not. Instead, it a very complex situation that is also a harbinger of the trouble to come without proper regulation.

First, the boy was being treated for a genetic disorder called ataxia telangiectasia in which the area of the brain responsible for movement deteriorates over time until the individual is no longer able to move and eventually dies. Exactly why the boy’s parents enrolled their child in the therapy trial is unclear; aside from the hope that this treatment, any treatment would help their ailing son.

Considering that the disorder is genetic, there is no reason to expect that injecting stem cells would be beneficial. There is no evidence that injected stem cells would migrate to the deteriorating locations, and once there, whether they would or even could act to replace the problematic tissue. According to Wired Science, the boy’s condition did not improve, so it can be inferred that the cells did not fix the implicated brain tissue.

The second issue here is the legitimacy of using fetal stem cells in the treatment of brain disorders and injuries. The cells used in this study were from the neural tissue of 8-12 week old aborted fetuses. At this stage of development, it is assumed that the cells within different tissues have already begun the differentiation process. Once differentiation has occurred it is unlikely that stem cells from the brain will turn into liver cells. By working with differentiated cells, researchers hope to have tighter control of the activity of the cells.

However, stem cells have a propensity to divide. In this manner they are very similar to cancer cells. In fact, there is evidence that points to stem cells as the culprits in certain kinds of cancer. The injected fetal cells were expected to divide (hopefully to create helpful neural tissue), but the scientists had no way of knowing for certain where the division would lead.

The final, and possibly the most crucial, question regarding this case is whether or not the cells were actually neural stem cells. Dr. Evan Y. Snyder, Professor at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, and Director of the Program in Stem Cell & Regenerative Biology and the Stem Cell Research Center, whose lab was the first to isolate human neural stem cells way back in 1998, is familiar with the Russian scientists who ran the stem cell study. His analysis is that their therapeutic protocol lacked methodological rigor.

“Although the Russians claim to be using “neural stem cells”, they are not. They essentially take whole fetal brain, put in a Cuisinart, and inject it uncharacterized as a graft slurry,” wrote Dr. Snyder on

When I asked him how he knew so much about their method, he said that he visited the Russian research site when they were initiating their investigations. He spoke with the surgeons about their methods and how the cells were provided to them.

“We told them they were doing it wrong. They found our procedures too tedious.”

Dr. Snyder and his colleagues have a paper in revision at the New England Journal of Medicine in which they analyzed the cells used in a similar case from the same group, and concluded that they were not likely to be neural stem cells.

“I am actually disappointed that the Israeli scientists who analyzed this material did not do a more careful characterization of the actual donor-derived tissue and cells. Had they done so, they would have known, as well, that what they saw could not have come from a rigorously defined neural stem cell,” says Dr. Snyder.

It is therefore possible that Israeli report is in fact inaccurate in its attribution of the tumor to “neural stem cells.” They found the abnormal growth to be made up of several different cell types, which is unusual for cancerous tumors. The variety of cell types, making up a neoplasm, is more in line with the development of undifferentiated stem cells than what would be expected from the injection of truly differentiated neural stem cells.

“This case has no bearing whatsoever on the legitimate biology and uses of stem cells, particularly neural stem cells,” wrote Dr. Snyder.

He further elaborated by saying, “The Israeli authors were not sufficiently skeptical or inquisitive enough… True normal neural stem cells likely do not have the capacity, without a series of mutations, to give rise to neoplasms. I do not believe it is part of their biology.”

Taken as a whole, this is a tragic story, which can hopefully be taken as a lesson. Proper regulation, not cessation, of stem cell therapy research will reduce the number of casualties from improper research methods. It will legitimize the research and reduce the number of rogue laboratories in foreign countries where people are almost certain to lose their lives in the search for a cure. And, it will speed the process of finding therapies that actually work.

14 Responses to “Reckless Science Leads to Rash Conclusions in Stem Cell Tragedy”

  1. Modemac says:

    Much of the controversy over stem cell research and development originates from the anti-abortion movement, though not all of it does; in fact, the anti-abortion faction doesn’t stand to gain much from this incident. The ones who will be most likely to use this sad event as proof of the evils of stem cells are the ones promoting the agenda that genetic modification and engineering is a Frankenstein-like science that is destined to turn us all into mutated, inhuman monsters…all for the profits of the corporations, of course. This is the fear that anti-GM activists look to capitalize on when they lobby for bans on GM crops, fish, and medicines (including stem cell research). The idea here is “nature good, technology bad,” and they will gleefully seize upon anything that can be used as proof that the corporations are out to foist untested, dangerous, and lethal genetic modifications upon us.

    The truth is far more complex and less glamourous, of course. Incidents such as this one are an unfortunate but inevitable result of the exploration of new fields of science that have not been seen before. Disappointments, setbacks, and even sad tragedies do occur, and we can and should extend our sympathies and grief to the ones who suffer from the results of unsuccessful and failed experiments, including this one. But that doesn’t mean we should slam the door shut on the entire field over this; rather, this can be seen as a stepping-stone to future successes that build upon the knowledge gained from the trials and errors of research. That’s the whole point of research — trial and error, failure and success. All fields of scientific research are paved with the graves of those who gave their lives — sometimes unintentionally and unknowingly — in the name of scientific progress.

    And, again, our sympathies lie with the family of the friends of the unnamed who passed away, despite the best efforts of doctors and physicians — and research scientists.

  2. MadScientist says:

    So the story is that the operating team were incompetents? Unfortunately you can find incompetent people anywhere on the planet.

    Even with people who know what they’re doing I would expect the occasional tragedy so I really don’t see this as news. People shouldn’t do things they’re not competent at – that’s been well known for ages; we also know that there will always be scoundrels out there.

  3. Cambias says:

    There has been a regrettable tendency to paint stem cells as a kind of panacea — and I can’t help but think that was partly driven by those who sought political advantage by depicting opponents of stem cell research (i.e. George W. Bush) as know-nothing Fundamentalists.

    This is a growing problem in just about all areas of science. Politicization of science means bad science, no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on.

    The only way to fight this is by education — real education, which gives people the facts and scientific understanding to make rational decisions, not just schooling them in somebody’s talking points.

  4. MadScientist says:

    @cambias: Unfortunately a lot of people find it easier to attract funding by spreading BS. This doesn’t work so well when the people approving funding are also scientists because they ask all the horrible questions like: “do you even know how to read?” However, politicians and venture capitalists are often wowed. Don’t forget, if you see it on the news it *must* be true (rolls eyeballs), so if you can get your propaganda out there you have better chance of catching your mark when you go out to do your mark-eting.

    I don’t see how this development would necessarily be a bad thing for gaining support for stem cell research; people who are capable of correct reasoning will see it as having little to no bearing on the subject while people incapable of proper reasoning wouldn’t need it to believe the nonsense that the religious groups peddle.

  5. Cambias says:


    You’re making the assumption that everyone falls neatly into the categories of “capable of correct reasoning” = supports stem cell research, and “incapable of proper reasoning” = believes religious nonsense.

    But what about the people who can reason properly yet still have religious (or even non-religious) ethical qualms about the use of fetal cells? Or the people whose opinions are not yet formed? Or people who are easily swayed by emotional appeals yet currently support stem cell research?

    A case like this makes a very powerful, visceral, under-the-reasoning-radar argument: STEM CELLS = TUMORS = DEATH. And it may even be true.

    Do we want stem cell research to suffer the same irrational fears that bedevil nuclear power or GM crops? No? Then a very useful step would be to loudly and vigorously oppose this kind of careless, dangerous medical quackery.

  6. Overarching the article and the subject of stem cell research is this gem of a quote, from Cambias, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

    “Politicization of science means bad science, no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on.”

    Replace the word ‘science’ with ‘skepticism’ and it works equally well.

    I’m old enough to have changed Darwin’s diapers, but I don’t recall a time when so many important scientific questions were so thoroughly politicized. This is because either the politicization of science is at an all-time high or there’s a problem with my memory.

  7. Max says:

    Here’s a clue from 2005:
    “Stem-Cell Craze Spreads in Russia”

    “While scientists worldwide are only studying stem cells, dozens of Russian clinics and beauty salons claim they are already using both adult and embryonic stem cells to treat everything from wrinkles to Parkinson’s disease to impotence.
    Scientists warn that while stem cells are still being researched in laboratories, treatment by clinics claiming to use stem cells may cost patients their health and fortunes. Moreover, they say, even though it’s illegal, enforcement is lax and no one knows if the injections patients are getting contain stem cells.”

    Read the whole thing.

  8. sonic says:

    I’m not sure that the use of fetal stem cells will give us any ‘cures’ to anything.
    I believe this is called ‘begging the question’ in logic, true?

  9. tmac57 says:

    Sonic:”I’m not sure that the use of fetal stem cells will give us any ‘cures’ to anything.
    I believe this is called ‘begging the question’ in logic, true?”
    And I believe that your argument is a ‘straw man’, Sonic.

  10. sonic says:

    On review I would say you are correct, there is nothing in the article that states that stem cells will ever ‘cure’ anything or will ever be part of a useful therapy. Sorry for the misreading.

  11. tmac57 says:

    Sonic: No problem. Glad you took the time to review. Cheers!

  12. Bob Tannenbaum says:

    here is the essential problem: how do we teach anything so that the “audience” understands clearly what is being taught?
    you do it in such a way that no misunderstandings can take place. that is, you go into the mind of the audience, ferret out where the mistakes and misunderstandings occur, and fix the lesson or essay, or speech so that the audience can not misunderstand what you are talking about.
    in this case, the news was given with no regard to the total picture, and to going back to basic scientific method which does work on both trial and error and probability theory. doctors practice on patients. it is called a practice for a reason. doctors have always used trial and error. just watch the tv show, house.

  13. Mr. Gunn says:

    Bob, that’s exactly the point. There’s been many discussions about this among the science blogging crowd, in terms of how we can help properly disseminate information, but we kinda have our problem cut out for us in the sensationalism and lack of understanding and context that plagues most mainstream media accounts of research. Compounding this is the lack of general scientific literacy among the general population due to years of neglect and underfunding of schools.

  14. Andrew says:

    As to Bob’s “audience”:
    In a play, even the audience is part of the production. We are let in on certain aspects of what is happening, however much study we have in the matter, or lack thereof. The audience is a mix of perspectives formed around a consensus, an acceptance that not everything is as it seems, that an illusion is taking place before their eyes, and that some truth is hidden within. Some fact, additionally, in the case of the media. The media has left something out: accuracy for the sake of attendance. Their production is based on factual events, and their stage is supposed to be set with that which represents those facts. Instead they give us a true, yet gaudy, fiction, one loaded with spectacle, devoid of any meaningful, believable, plot, scant on characterization through the diversity of human experience, and brings so much attention to itself as to be not merely a running parody, but an unfailing irony. That the media, in all its information bloated glory, in which we learn about our everyday world, in fact tells us nothing about it. It’s the romance novel that was written once, and ever again. Pick up one, you’ve picked ‘em all up. Watch the news one day, and save a breaking story, or brand new scientific discovery, you’ve just watched every broadcast ever aired. Of course I’m over-generalizing. There are significant moments that the news brings us, up front, and as raw as you can get through a screen. But, besides momentous occasions, what do they offer us? Not education. Not even a good story.