By Hilary White

LONDON, April 11, 2008 ( – Lord Patel of Dunkeld, chairman of the UK National Stem Cell Network and chancellor of Dundee University, told the Scotsman earlier this week that research involving stem cells would likely lead to therapies, but that ultimately such treatments could prove too risky for human use.

He also said it could be five to ten years before viable stem cell treatments were available. But even then, he observed, “We have to be cautious. It may not deliver therapy for anything. We may find that stem therapy is quite a risky business.”

In terms of the efficacy of stem cell cures, Lord Patel did not draw a distinction between embryonic and adult stem cell research. Thus far, however, researchers working with embryos have found that the use of embryonic stem cells involves a high risk of the development of cancerous tumours. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, have already been successfully used in a host of cures.

Scientists, particularly in the U.K., however, are continuing to push for embryonic stem cell research, including that involving animal-human hybrids, a form of research that Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien has called a “monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life.” 

An enormous amount of money has already been poured into embryonic stem cell research. In 2004, those in favour of embryonic stem cell research in California presented the public with images of the blind seeing and the lame walking, specifically promising cures for such diseases as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, to sway a California referendum that proposed to create a $300 million-a-year fund for embryonic research, including human cloning.

Promises of imminent cures made to the California voters included cures for spinal cord injuries, blindness, Lou Gehrig’s disease, HIV/AIDS, mental health disorders, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, and more than 70 other diseases and injuries.

Many pro-life advocates have long held that extravagant promises of cures have always been a smoke screen used by embryo researchers more interested in learning to manipulate the human genome for non-medical purposes. Lord Patel’s remarks to the Scotsman only serve to confirm what embryo stem cell skeptics have been saying for years.

Lord Patel, however, told the Scotsman that despite the high risks and the uncertainty about the future of embryonic stem cell research, such research should be wholeheartedly pursued, including the use of human-animal hybrids. “We had a lot of hype about gene therapy, and while we still use it in some cases it did not deliver the great promise we thought it would because of the side-effects. But the promise just now is great and we must continue with the stem cell science.”

US author and bioethics-watcher Wesley J. Smith wrote on his blog on Tuesday, in response to Lord Patel’s remarks, criticizing the “journalistic malpractice” that has massively overinflated the promise of embryonic stem cell research. Californians, he observed, are now facing a $16 billion budget deficit in order to borrow the annual $300 million allocated for human cloning and embryonic research. He accused the media of committing “serial journalistic malpractice with biased reporting and a news blockade on non embryonic stem cell successes” in the effort to overturn US President Bush’s ban on federal funding for new stem cell lines.

Smith wrote, “By hyping the potential, the politicized science sector mislead people to win a political debate, and in the process reduced science to just another special interest spinning and obfuscating to get a greater share of gruel in the public trough.”

Meanwhile, even as Lord Patel was making the comments, further important breakthroughs are being made with adult cells. News reports released yesterday say that researchers at Stanford University have genetically engineered normal (non-stem) skin cells into cancer stem cells. The discovery could provide a new source of cancer stem cells that could give scientists clues about the role of stem cells in tumour growth. The artificial stem cells could also act as targets for potential cancer drugs.