By Hilary White

DUBLIN, November 9, 2010 ( – Funding for ethical stem cell research is hampered by a shallow “cult of celebrity” in scientific research that is fed by media hype, a leading researcher in adult stem cells told this weekend.

Dr. Colin McGuckin, who was the first to synthesize living and functioning human liver tissue from adult stem cells, was speaking at a conference held by the leading Irish pro-life group Youth Defence. His topic was the medical and ethical advantages of research using “somatic” cells (those taken from the patient’s own body) and stem cells derived from stored umbilical cord blood.

“History shows that the last hundred years in medicine will be some of the most embarrassing in the history of human development because the cult of celebrity affected every part of humanity,” said McGuckin. “Being famous seems to be the only route forward for doing anything useful in life to most children.”

According to McGuckin this cult of celebrity, driven by hopes of miraculous cures and media recognition, has even taken over funding practices for scientific research – and this is especially true when it comes to stem cell research.

“When we were at university people told us that if you want to be a good scientist you have to come up with a novel thought and it will be peer-reviewed by all your peers, and you will try to do the right thing for humanity if you’re going to do medical research. It used to be that you’d be peer-reviewed and the best proposal for a fund would go forward and get the money.”

But that has changed in recent years, he said.

“The whole world has moved toward a celebrity culture. Now if you’re pitted for a Nobel Prize, you’re going to get any fund you can think of. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s rubbish work or not; no one is going to dare to reject it.”

Media-generated controversy gets attention, he continued, and this presents a huge problem for those doing non-controversial, but immensely beneficial work with adult or umbilical cord blood cells.

“People aren’t talking about cord blood because it’s not controversial,” he said. “Consequently, it does not make headlines and therefore researchers who want to use the cells from cord blood do not receive funding.”

“It’s a vicious circle. If cord blood were controversial people would be talking about it seriously at government level. But because people aren’t writing in and giving their ministers a hard time, no one [in government] is talking about it.”

Dr. McGuckin has been working in the field of stem cell biology since 1988 and has become one of the world’s most sought-after experts in stem cell biology, tissue engineering, transplantation sciences and cancer treatment.

Even so, he described his own funding since the global financial crisis as “terrible.” He is the director of the Cell Therapy Research Institute in Lyon, France, one of the world’s largest adult stem cell centres. He recently moved his research work to France from Britain, saying that U.K. universities and funding agencies continually prioritize embryonic stem cell research.

“After the financial crisis it was awful. It is the cult of celebrity, and even if you make liver cells, you’re only a celebrity for ten minutes then they’re giving [funding] to the next person.”

In reference to possible solutions to the problem, the doctor said: “People have to write in. They have to raise their voices. It’s no good saying ‘I don’t like embryonic stem cell research if you don’t have something alternative to offer. Negativity never wins anything.”

Dr. McGuckin predicts that groups, universities and individual researchers will push for embryonic stem cell research for at least another ten years. “But ten years from now we won’t be any further on in terms of clinical treatments.”

“People will still want embryonic stem cells as treatments. They won’t be cures, but they will be heralded as cures. In the meantime the only way we can fight back is to show that adult stem cells at the same time has gone from where it is now, 100,000 bone marrow treatments, 20,000 cord blood treatments, and in ten year’s time it will be a million.”

Dr. McGuckin said he was baffled as to why there is a push by the Irish government for embryonic stem cell research, which is being “dumped” by researchers around the world in favor of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells.

Niamh Uí Bhriain of the Life Institute told LSN that in her view the Irish government’s movement towards embryo research, despite the fact that it is fast becoming obsolete, cannot simply be attributed to ignorance.

“When we look at the evidence presented in how Irish government ministers have voted in the EU and how they have appointed various groups to do research, it’s apparent that a certain ideology is driving government policy – and that ideology doesn’t favor protecting life from conception,” she said.

“The current Minister for Health, [Mary Harney,] for example, has given millions to abortion referral agencies, and has called for 11-year olds to be given the morning-after-pill. It would actually buck the trend if the Department of Health then wanted to protect the embryo.

“That’s why it’s so crucial for the pro-life majority to speak up and make the government listen and ensure human life is protected from the cradle to the grave,” she added.