Media Cover Up Adult Stem Cell Research Success With Misleading Terms

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 20, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Media Cover Up Adult Stem Cell Research Success With Misleading Terms

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by William Beckman Editor
June 20
, 2008 Note: William Beckman is the executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee. Opinion articles like this one do not necessarily reflect the views of

The June 19, 2008 headline reads “US doctors kill skin cancer with cloned T-cells.” Does this suggest that human cloning of embryonic stem cells has been successful in treating skin cancer? Absolutely not!

The details of the New England Journal of Medicine report that generated this news coverage reveal that adult stem cells obtained from the patient were used.

As reported in ScienceDaily, researchers “removed CD4+ T cells, a type of white blood cell, from a 52-year-old man whose Stage 4 melanoma had spread to a groin lymph node and to a lung. T cells specific to targeting the melanoma were then expanded vastly in the laboratory using modifications to existing methods.”

The exciting result was an apparent cure of melanoma for this patient. “Two months later, PET and CT scans revealed no tumors. The patient remained disease free two years later, when he was last checked.”

Can other melanoma patients expect to receive this treatment soon? The reality check came from researcher Cassian Yee, M.D.

“Yee cautioned that these results represent only one patient with a specific type of immune system whose tumor cells expressed a specific antigen. More studies are needed to confirm the effectiveness of the experimental T-cell therapy.”

The widely reported introduction for this news story was: “US doctors have for the first time successfully treated a skin cancer patient with cells cloned from his own immune system.” The story included a later reference stating that the treatment “used his own cloned infection-fighting T-cells.”

How many people will immediately think of cloned human beings? That has become a common reference point in the debate over stem cell research since cloning of embryos to obtain stem cells is considered a necessary step by advocates of embryonic stem cell research.

Technically, use of “cloned” in the news report about treating melanoma is accurate. A definition of cloning states, “Cloning is the process of making an identical copy of something. In biology, it collectively refers to processes used to create copies of DNA fragments.”

However, since reporting of this stem cell research success never used the phrase “adult stem cells” — even though the original cells were taken directly from the patient — confusion is very likely to occur for many readers, whether that confusion was intended or not.

This news represents an exciting medical breakthrough that will become even more exciting if it can be duplicated by additional studies. This breakthrough was achieved using adult stem cells that were isolated based on specific characteristics and encouraged to duplicate themselves so large numbers of these stem cells could be infused into the patient.

This result again demonstrates that killing embryos (cloned or otherwise) for stem cells is not required to achieve medical breakthroughs.

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