On Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume and Bill Kristol asserted that the recent announcement that scientists have reprogrammed adult stem cells to apparently behave like embryonic stem cells would end the debate over embryonic stem cell research. But none of the panelists mentioned that several scientists, including one of the lead researchers, have said that the reprogramming does not end the need for embryonic stem-cell research.
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On the November 25 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, during a panel discussion on the recent announcement by U.S. and Japanese scientists that they had successfully reprogrammed adult cells to apparently behave like embryonic stem cells, Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol asserted that this scientific technique, if it performed as claimed, would end the debate over embryonic stem-cell research. But none of the panelists mentioned that several scientists, reportedly including one of the lead American researchers, have said that the reprogramming does not end the need for embryonic stem-cell research.
In the discussion, host Chris Wallace asked Hume, "[H]ow big is this announcement of a breakthrough on stem cells, both as a scientific development and also as it filters into the political debate?" Hume responded, "If no flaw is found in the claims for this, this is huge, because it will virtually eliminate the whole moral dilemma that was created by the use of embryos to generate stem cells." Wallace later asked Kristol if he thought "this [discovery] will take that issue [embryonic stem-cell research] off the table?" to which Kristol replied, "Yes, I think, in the short term. But I think the broader issue of balancing the claims of morality and the progress of medical science remains."
While none of the panelists noted Thomson's reported caveat that it would be premature to abandon embryonic stem-cell research, National Public Radio special correspondent Juan Williams did argue against the notion that the breakthrough automatically "removes the need for continued research on embryos." During the panel discussion, Williams stated that "[t]his may not work. You know, we don't know yet." Hume responded: "Well, everything in this -- this entire discussion is premised on the fact that what is said about this is true. Now, if you want to dispute that, your scientific knowledge may be so great that I can't argue with you." Hume continued: "But all I'm saying is if this is true, this is a tremendous breakthrough fostered by -- fostered in part, as Bill has just pointed out, by the resistance to doing it with embryos. And it provides an unlimited series of -- set of stem cells to work with. And getting them is infinitely simpler and less complex than doing it the other way." After "salut[ing]" Bush's "moral stand," Williams said, "But if that's his stand, he took it. And it's had some good outcome. But don't think that this then removes the need for continued research on embryos and the kind of stem cells that come from those lines."
But no one on the panel noted that scientists, including one of those responsible for this research, have reportedly said that the findings do not eliminate the need for further embryonic stem-cell research. As Media Matters for America has noted, a November 21 New York Times article on the new technique reported that both Dr. James A. Thomson, who led the research at the University of Wisconsin, and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who led the research in Japan, "caution, though, that they still must confirm that the reprogrammed human skin cells really are the same as stem cells they get from embryos." The article further reported that "while those studies are under way, Dr. Thomson and others say, it would be premature to abandon research with stem cells taken from human embryos."
Furthermore, as the blog The Scientific Activist noted, Yamanaka's team stated in the report of its findings, published in the November 30 issue of the journal Cell, that the stem cells produced by its technique -- called human "induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells" -- "are not identical to hES [human embryonic stem] cells: DNA microarray analyses detected differences between the two pluripotent stem cell lines." The report then stated that "[f]urther studies are essential to determine whether human iPS cells can replace hES in medical applications."
Moreover, Cell's "preview" of the Yamanaka team's report, written by Holm Zaehres and Hans R. Schöler of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine, explained why further research with embryonic stem cells is still required:
Direct reprogramming of somatic cells to a pluripotent state, thus reversing the developmental arrow of time, is considered by some to be the "holy grail" of stem cell research. Once the results in human cells are confirmed, these advances will enable the creation of patient-specific stem cell lines to study different disease mechanisms in the laboratory. Such cellular models also have the potential to dramatically increase the efficiency of drug discovery and to provide valuable tools for toxicology testing. Furthermore, this reprogramming system could make the idea of customized patient-specific screening and therapy both possible and economically feasible. Finally, the work will have a powerful impact on the intense debate regarding the moral, religious, and political aspects of ES cell research. However, a big mistake now would be to consider human ES cells obsolete. There are still many hurdles to overcome before we fully understand pluripotency and before we have human iPS cells in hand that are suitable for therapeutic application. For example, a significant proportion of mice derived from mouse iPS cells develop tumors due to reactivation of the c-Myc retrovirus (Okita et al., 2007) compared to mice derived from ES cells, which are normal. The search is now on to find a way to reprogram somatic cells without retroviruses and maybe even using a cocktail of small molecules. Given this, it should be emphasized that human ES cell research is more important than ever for it will shed light on how iPS cells can best be maintained in their pluripotent state and how they can be induced to differentiate into the cell lineage of interest. The field of nuclear reprogramming has come a long way from the initial nuclear transplantation studies in frogs 50 years ago, to the birth of Dolly, the first mammal cloned from adult somatic cells (Wilmut et al., 1997), to the fallout from the fabricated human nuclear transfer experiments of several years ago, to the landmark studies of Takahashi, Yamanaka, and their colleagues, first in mice and now in humans.
From the November 25 broadcast of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:
MITT ROMNEY (Republican presidential candidate) [video clip]: The good news from the news this morning is we're going to have an ample supply of stem cells for research and for treatment without encountering these moral dilemmas.
WALLACE: That was presidential candidate Mitt Romney talking about the announcement this week that researchers have turned human skin cells into stem cells without using embryos.
And it's time now for our Sunday group -- Brit Hume, Washington managing editor of Fox News, and Fox News contributors Mara Liasson of National Public Radio, Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, and Juan Williams, also from National Public Radio.
So, Brit, how big is this announcement of a breakthrough on stem cells, both as a scientific development and also as it filters into the political debate?
HUME: If no flaw is found in the claims for this, this is huge, because it will virtually eliminate the whole moral dilemma that was created by the use of embryos to generate stem cells.
Now we have, as you heard Governor Romney say, this large supply of them and it should mean that funding is now available not only from private sources, but from the federal government to advance this research.
This is a tremendously positive thing that everyone should be rejoicing over.
LIASSON: Yes, I think politically it helps all the Republicans who until now have been against stem-cell research, which is quite popular among the broad population.
HUME: Embryonic stem cells.
LIASSON: Embryonic stem-cell research, which is popular among the general election electorate, if not the Republican primary electorate.
WALLACE: So explain why it would help the Republicans.
LIASSON: It helps those Republicans who have been up until now against research on embryonic stem cells because that is a position that in the general election could hurt them.
Now, I would say Romney's first and foremost in that group, because he's someone who switched his position. He's someone who's been kind of under fire for his march to the right on social issues.
And I think if this, in fact, pans out -- and I bet in a year or two we'll know that -- or maybe that would be too late.
WALLACE: Well, we only have one year to the election.
LIASSON: That's too late. I'm trying to do the math in my head. But the point is we'll know pretty soon.
A lot of times when we've had these discoveries of a bunch of stem cells that are researchable, they turn out not to be so great. But this one I think we should know pretty soon, and it could help him.
WALLACE: Bill, I think it's fair to say that in the 2006 congressional races, embryonic stem-cell research was an issue in a number of states. Missouri was one, certainly, in the Senate race there.
Do you think this will take that issue off the table?
KRISTOL: Yes, I think, in the short term. But I think the broader issue of balancing the claims of morality and the progress of medical science remains.
And I think we need to give President Bush credit here before we get into all the 2008 politics. He made a serious effort to foster non-ethically problematic stem-cell research.
Some of the stem-cell research that we're celebrating today was, in fact, spurred on by NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding, which the president increased for stem-cell research that did not involve the destruction of embryos, but he drew a moral line.
There are going to be many, many instances in this century where we're going to have to balance morality and science. And I think he deserves a lot of credit for making a serious effort to balance both, and it looks like it's going to have a happy ending.
WILLIAMS: Yes, hats off to President Bush on that, because he did put some money into the idea of looking for an area where you could get stem cells that wouldn't come from embryos and wouldn't engage this whole argument about abortion, which -- I think this is a -- what we're seeing here is the president, the Republican Party, especially as it's wed to the forces that oppose abortion in American life, have sidestepped a difficult issue.
And the way that they have done it, I think, though, has delayed, potentially, innovation. And it has not obviated the need --
HUME: Oh, please.
WILLIAMS: Why do you say please?
HUME: Well, because look at what we've gotten out of this. This new process is infinitely less complex and difficult than the one involving embryonic stem cells.
WILLIAMS: Yes, but, Brit, wait a second.
HUME: Excuse me.
WILLIAMS: This does not match -- if you don't have a genetic match, which is what you require, which is why people were looking for research on discarded embryos -- discarded; not from any live person, you know, taking a fetus or something -- the idea was that the genetic material would have to match in order to perform stem-cell therapy.
This may not work. You know, we don't know yet.
HUME: Well, everything in this -- this entire discussion is premised on the fact that what is said about this is true. Now, if you want to dispute that, your scientific knowledge may be so great that I can't argue with you.
But all I'm saying is if this is true, this is a tremendous breakthrough fostered by -- fostered in part, as Bill has just pointed out, by the resistance to doing it with embryos.
And it provides an unlimited series of -- set of stem cells to work with. And getting them is infinitely simpler and less complex than doing it the other way.
WILLIAMS: No one's arguing that, and I, with Bill and you, salute President Bush. He took a moral stand. I actually think that it was interfering, as Mrs. [Nancy] Reagan, as Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger [CA], and others have said, with scientific innovation.
But if that's his stand, he took it. And it's had some good outcome. But don't think that this then removes the need for continued research on embryos and the kind of stem cells that come from those lines.
WALLACE: All right. Let's move on to the campaign trail instead of the scientific campaign trail.