News from South Korea that scientists have successfully created cloned human embryos from which they have derived an embryonic stem cell line has been greeted largely with enthusiasm. Of course, there are those who will always object to the use of human embryos in stem cell research. But, as time goes on, the response to such research becomes more and more positive. If there is any criticism of the embryonic stem cell research, it seems to be that we are perhaps too positive about it.
We've become familiar with the idea of 'gene hype', but some are worrying that we now have 'stem cell hype' too. Robert Winston, writing in the Independent on Sunday, is concerned that the Korean research has been received with too much enthusiasm: 'The press, doubtless encouraged by the scientists concerned, announced that this cloning experiment holds huge hope for the treatment of an extraordinary mix of serious disorders, such as Alzheimer's and heart failure. Some exaggerated claims are being made.'
Some exaggerated claims probably are being made. But those in the stem cell research community have been very careful to say that any therapies will be many years down the line. However, timescales are easily forgotten, particularly when therapies for such a range of diseases are being discussed. So, should we be talking about treatments for diabetes and Parkinson's disease at all? It's difficult to see how we can avoid mentioning them. Journalists want to relate stories that mean something to their audience, leading them inevitably to focus upon tomorrow's beneficiaries of today's research.
Discussion of future therapies is necessary because it helps us to see why research is taking place and where it is leading. However, focusing too heavily upon therapeutic outcomes could lead to disappointment. As Robert Winston observes, the most exciting benefits of stem cell research may come from unexpected quarters. He suggests that one such area is cancer treatments. Robin Lovell-Badge, also writing in the Independent on Sunday, cites other examples of research angles such as understanding genetic disease and working out the relationship between genes and drugs.
These examples demonstrate that scientific research sometimes makes unexpected discoveries and that knowledge acquired in one area of research may end up helping researchers in a different area of research to develop new treatments. For instance, we may in the future find that it is better to use adult stem cells for clinical use. But researchers need to work on human embryonic stem cells in order to acquire a basic understanding of what exactly is happening when stem cells are transplanted into diseased tissue in a patient. It is surely preferable to learn about such basic processes by experimenting on embryos, than by experimenting on patients.