Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Oprah's moment of truth: "the stem cell debate is dead" thanks to iPS...

Ladies and Gentlemen, you have to take a look at this ‘teachable moment’ on that leading scientific peer-reviewed programme, Oprah. See http://www.oprah.com/media/20090319-tows-dr-oz-brain

What a sight: Michael J Fox there suffering Parkinson’s (he is the number one ill-informed agitator for ESC research) being told by Oprah’s resident medical expert, Dr Oz, that “the stem cell debate is dead” because we can now “take a little bit of your skin” (here he touches Fox’s arm) and take it back to the same as embryo stem cells… Here is what was said, starting at about 2min 04 into the interview:

“I think, Oprah, the stem cell debate is dead, and I’ll tell you why… The problem with embryonic stem cells is that they come from embryos, like all of us were made from embryos, and those cells can become any cell in the body, but it’s very hard to control and they can become cancer”… (this is at 2min35, and MJ Fox looks a little more restless at this point, and Oprah is tight-lipped, sensing a ‘non-PC moment’). “But in this time of fighting that we’ve had – which did I think slow down research – there have been a huge amount of changes. In the last year we’ve made 10 years’ advancement… and here’s what the deal is: I can take a little bit of your skin, take those cells, and get them to go back in time so they’re like they were when you were first made. And then they will start to make that dopamine.

“And I think that those cells – because they won’t be as prone to cancer because they’re your genes – will be the ones that will ultimately be used to cure Parkinson’s. And nobody can tell how fast we can do this, but I’ve talked to a lot of experts in this field, but I think we’re single-digit years away from making a big impact on the lives of Parkinson’s disease, but not only Parkinson’s diseases, also diabetics, heart attack victims, people who had a lot of problems…”

Remarkable that this word of truth – which validates President Bush’s policy of funding the search for ethical alternatives to embryos research - should ever be heard on the Oprah (Obama’s #1fan) show. I can think of one constructive explanation: the departure of Pres Bush means there is no longer a visceral need for the Oprah-liberal camp to promote ESC / cloning just as part of a culture war against Bush; they are free to be more even-handed about stem-cell science. In the same way, there is no longer a need for the international left-liberals to hate America as part of hating Bush; since Obama, they are free to be more even-handed about America. So perhaps under Obama the Bush-haters will be free to acknowledge the shortcomings of ESC / cloning in a way they couldn’t under Bush.

One problem with the Oprah doc’s comments: there seems to be a pervasive notion that iPS cells, as he said, ‘won’t be as prone to cancer’ as ESCs. I do not agree with this. The teratoma downside is exactly the same. I think Dr Oz is muddling the teratoma risk with the cancer risk associated with viral integration used to obtain iPS (and a further minor muddle - Dr Oz should know that this 'viral cancer' concern has now been laid to rest with virus-free techniques for iPS- see earlier Blog).

I always remind people that iPS cells are no more likely than ESC to be used in direct transplant, as the risk is the same – only adult stem cells can be safely placed in the human body without tumour risk. Conversely, iPS cells are as good as ESC for any research (or generation of transplantable terminal cells) scientists might want to do.

Still, apart from the slight muddle at the edges, this Oprah-Fox moment was highly significant as a breakthrough into public consciousness of the true shape of stem cell science – and as a vindication of the thesis of this website: that cloning is dead, and ESC science is peacefully dying.