Last Saturday the LA Times ran a story with the headline: Cord blood: Banking on unproven hopes. The article highlights some studies in which human patients have have been successfully treated with stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood, particularly mentioning the case of 3-year-old Dallas Hextell who was treated for cerebral palsy with his own cord blood that his parents banked after he was born:
Within a few weeks of the transfusion, his nystagmus — spasms of the eye — disappeared, the Hextells said. Five months later, he could stand.
A month after that, he took his first steps on the front lawn while his parents were taking down their Christmas lights. “Quick, go get the video camera,” Cynthia shrieked.
Then the focus shifts to “some medical experts” who, though “intrigued” by the research, warn that it’s “too early” and that “no scientific evidence exists yet to show that any of these therapies are beneficial in humans.” Dr. George Daley, a hematologist and stem cell researcher at Children’s Hospital Boston, is quoted as saying:
“There have been many instances where what looks like a miraculous improvement in an investigational therapy ultimately doesn’t pan out.”
(Of course, none of those instances are ever actually mentioned specifically.) And the doctor who was responsible for Dallas Hextell’s successful treatment is described as being “troubled by the publicity that her trial and Dallas Hextell have elicited.”
Contrast that to this story (by a different author) published by the Times just one month earlier on the FDA’s approval of the first human clinical trial involving embryonic stem cells. Talk about unproven hopes and research with no scientific evidence to show that such a therapy would be beneficial in humans! There hasn’t been much success with ESCs in rats, yet for crying out loud! Yet, the article describes the approval as “ushering in a new era in medicine” without even a hint of skepticism, besides cautioning at the end that a cure could still be years away (my emphasis):
As a Phase I trial, the study will primarily assess the safety of the treatment, which has been under development by Menlo Park, Calif.-based Geron Corp. for nearly a decade. But scientists, doctors and patients said they were most eager to see whether low doses of the cells would produce any therapeutic benefit.
If so, it would help validate years of hope and investment in the nascent field of regenerative medicine. Besides patients with spinal cord injuries, stem cell therapies could ultimately benefit people with such intractable diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.
Now, I know better than to expect much from the media these days. But I still can’t help feeling like SNL’s Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers here. REALLY, LA Times!?! Really. Therapies with umbilical cord blood cells that have been shown in a number of human patients to at least reduce the symptoms of the disease they were meant to treat should be viewed skeptically but we should consider the first ever human trials with with (the thus far tumor inducing) ESCs to be the beginning of a “new era in medicine?” REALLY!?! Huh, Wow!
To be fair, the LA-T piece did mention in one very small sentence that direct injections of pure ESCs (which this new trial is not) tend to grow tumors and that the FDA approved treatment has supposedly had some success in mouse trials. But that still doesn’t make it some breakthrough medical treatment – especially when you don’t consider something that has actually treated human patients to be one.