National Catholic Reporter Misleads Readers on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 6, 2010   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

National Catholic Reporter Misleads Readers on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

by Jack Smith
July 6, 2010 Note: This opinion column was written by Jack Smith of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Jospeh and first appeared on the Catholic Key blog. It is reprinted with permission.

Bill Tammeus has written a column over at NCR titled “It’s easy to be misled on stem cell research,” and he proves the point pretty well himself. It’s hard to tell though whether he’s misled or intending to mislead. At any rate, certainly his editors know he’s factually incorrect.

Tammeus is a Presbyterian who is concerned that the Catholic church has an imprecise understanding of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) or cloning as it is known throughout the entire world except for the Greater Kansas City media market. This imprecise understanding has led to an unjustified moral condemnation of SCNT by the Catholic church, according to Tammeus. So he endeavors to explain the science for us poorly informed Catholics. This is so bad, I have to go line by line.

Tammeus explains that SCNT produces something he calls “early stem cells”. These are cells “which unfortunately, imprecisely and thus misleadingly are usually called embryonic stem cells,” he says. Let’s consult the National Institutes of Health stem cell information center:

Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT)—A technique that combines an enucleated egg and the nucleus of a somatic cell to make an embryo.

Strike one.

Tammeus again:

I’ve been writing about stem cell research for much of the last decade, so I know that research using adult stem cells has been going on for more than 50 years. By contrast, the first report of early human stem cells produced by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) was not published until 2004.

That study would be "Evidence of a pluripotent human embryonic stem cell line derived from a cloned blastocyst" by Woo Suk Hwang, et. al. Notice that the scientist does not think it imprecise or misleading to use the term “embryonic stem cells” to describe what he’s working on, nor does he flinch from saying such cells were derived from a cloned (SCNT) blastocyst, i.e., a “preimplantation embryo of about 150 cells,” again as defined by the National Institutes of Health’s stem cell page.

But now the irony of Tammeus’ referencing this study gets even deeper. That study and a subsequent study in which Hwang claimed to have derived stem cell lines from cloned blastocysts were both retracted by Science magazine and Hwang was dismissed from Seoul National University. Reviews of his work found that Hwang had not in fact derived any stem cell lines from cloned blastocysts.

Tammeus continues following immediately on the last quote:

So it’s not surprising that some effective therapies that use adult stem cells exist while many therapies using early SCNT stem cells still are in development.

Let’s look at the words “some” and “many” – because the words to substitute if Tammeus’ quote were to be factual are “many” and “zero”. There are more than 70 treatments and therapies for diseases derived from adult stem cell research. There are absolutely ZERO therapies or treatments in development using stem cells derived from SCNT. That’s because to date there have been no stem cells lines derived from human SCNT for anybody to be working on.

Furthermore, SCNT for therapeutic purposes has been virtually abandoned as a research model because of newer discoveries like Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells which are derived from somatic cells without the need for an egg.

I could go on and on through the rest of Tammeus’ piece. Bill Tammeus is a fine writer in his field and I’ve enjoyed his work at the Kansas City Star over the years, but he doesn’t know the first thing about the science he’s trying to explain to us poor Catholics here.

The science of embryonic stem cell research is something that is extremely distorted specifically in the minds of Kansas Citians because of the political manipulation of the Stowers Institute of Medical Research which needed to create that confusion in order to get Missourians to allow them to try therapeutic cloning. It’s pretty clear Tammeus got his misinformation from them as he even quotes their CEO.

I think it’s fair for him and many other Kansas Citians to be confused. What’s not fair is for the National Catholic Reporter’s editors to give space for what they certainly know is false information.


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