NIH Chief’s shocking ignorance on stem cells

Date: 04/30/2007

For those who like our government’s scientific policy to be guided, at least in part, by scientific evidence, remarks by NIH chief Elias Zerhouni concerning the government’s role in stem cell research at a recent congressional hearing were puzzling. Clearly breaking with the administration policy, Zerhouni said that unless the government funds research using embryonic stem cells lines beyond the current 21 approved lines that are being shipped and used in 85% of the world’s human embryonic stem cell experiments we risk “being second best in this area.” In making this assertion he dismissed claims for adult stem cells, saying they “do not hold scientific water.”

What makes this remark from the head of the NIH rather curious is that the NIH’s own website on stem cells states: “Adult stem cells…are currently the only type of stem cell commonly used to treat human diseases…The clinical potential of adult stem cells has also been demonstrated in the treatment of other human diseases that include diabetes and advanced kidney cancer.”(National Institutes of Heath, “Stem Cell Information: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS)” at

In addition, there are currently 697 FDA-approved clinical trials related to adult stem cells that are recruiting patients, and a total of 1422 such trials when those no longer recruiting patients are included (,

accessed April 9, 2007) And on our website,, we list peer reviewed evidence of the therapeutic benefit to patient who have received an adult stem cell treatment for 72 disease and conditions.

Most recently, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers report a that “a therapy that includes [adult] stem cell transplantation induced extended insulin independence in patients with type 1 diabetes” .

During the past year, Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, has sponsored briefings and other events at which patient who were treated with their own adult stem cells or cord blood stem cells told their stories. Five years ago, doctors had given up hope for a patient with heart disease and expected him to die soon; today he is alive with a 50% improvement in his condition after having been treated with his own stem cells.

Can the benefits these patients have received from adult stem cells, and the evidence from hundreds of peer-reviewed article and the work of so many researchers really hold no scientific water?

In marked contrast, when Zerhouni claims embryonic stem cells have more potential than adult, that is all embryonic stem cells seem to have: potential. Embryonic stem cells have not treated one human patient; in fact, after over 25 years of experiments using embryonic stem cells in animal models, researchers have yet to develop a successful treatment in mice for any disease that could be used as a model to undertake the first steps for a clinical trial with human patients. Nor will treatments with ESCs happen anytime soon. According to a L.A. Times report (12/6/06) , the California Institute of Regenerative, flush with $3 billion in state money over the next 10 years, in its draft plan now admits that it is “unlikely that [it] will be able to fully develop stem cell therapy for routine clinical use during the 10 years of the plan.” At best, the Institute says it hopes to establish, in principal, an embryonic stem cell treatment for at least one disease.

It is important to note then when President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission, in 1999, first proposed federal funding of embryonic stem cell research it laid down as a condition that “the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.” At the time the Commission concluded such alternatives were not available, but noted this conclusion “is a matter that must be revisited continually as science advances.” (Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research, National Bioethics Advisory Commission, Sept., 1999 )

Advocates of ESCR have shown a noticeable indifference to assessing the scientific advances for less morally problematic alternatives to embryonic stem cell research over the last 8 years. They simply assert the supposed superiority of ESCs to cure almost anything (recently Sen. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) made the rather remarkable claim that ESCs will cure autism!) and dismiss peer-reviewed evidence showing the benefits of adult and cord blood stem cells, both in animal models and in real human patients

While dismissing the published evidence of the therapeutic potential of adult stem cells, Zerhouni tries to make the case for embryonic stem cells by claiming their supposed use in finding out how DNA is reprogrammed. This is basic research, and basic research is a fine thing to pursue. But that is not what the public has been sold as the reason to publicly fund ethically problematical embryonic stem cell research. The public has been sold embryonic stem cells as something that will, in a relatively short period of time, produce cures that are almost miraculous in their scope, not just answer basic questions about DNA reprogramming or embryonic development.

In making this justification for more lines, Zerhouni ignores the fact that everything we want to understand about such basic scientific questions as DNA reprogramming can be learned better, easier, faster and cheaper with animal studies. There is simply no need for more human ESC lines.

As an illustration of this fact, the Cancer Genome Project

( indicates the vast majority of cancer research in the world is conducted using a total of 785 established cancer cell lines. Given there are approximately 200 different recognized forms of human cancer, this is less than 4 lines per cancer type, on average. In contrast, ESCs are considered a single cell type, and we have 21 different lines available through the NIH. This is more than enough for basic research.

Claiming genetic instability and feeder cell contamination in the currently approved lines as justification for funding additional ESC lines are red herrings as well. Such concerns would come into play only if we are going to use ESCs for medical treatments in the near future. This is clearly not the case. Moreover, Zerhouni himself has said contamination would be no problem, and the FDA and leading embryonic stem cell scientists have documented that the contamination can be removed from the current lines.

In sum, NIH director Zerhouni’s plea for more NIH funding was a disservice to patients who have benefited from adult and cord blood stem cell treatments, to the work of his colleagues in the scientific community who focus their research on adult and cord blood stem cells, and to the President who appointed him.