Tue Jul 24, 2001 - 12:15 pm EST

WASHINGTON, July 24, 2001 ( - As the battle over the funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) rages in Washington, the media have repeatedly failed to expose the bias of many oft-quoted “experts” on the issue. Pro-life observers have wondered why the ethically problematic ESCR is being so heavily promoted when an ethically viable and many say superior alternative exists. Moreover, the whole argument of “a woman’s right to choose” is not part of the argument. The answer to the dilemma comes from an article in last week’s National Journal (NJ) exposing the financial interests of scientists who promote ESCR.

NJ reports that “the media coverage has often missed the pecuniary interests of the scientists who have been prominent in supporting government funding for research into the use of stem cells from human embryos.” While such scientists are often prominent faculty members at prestigious universities and public research institutions, they are also often board members and shareholders of biotechnology companies which stand to make hefty profits from ESCR. “They are in short, both disinterested scientists and very interested entrepreneurs,” says NJ’s Neil Munro in “Mixing Business With Stem Cells”.

NJ profiles the potential bias of four leading scientist spokesmen favouring funding of ESCR:  - Thomas Okarma, who has testified repeatedly for federal funding of ESCR, is the CEO of Geron Corp. (market valute $700 million last July) - the market leader in this research. NJ notes that Geron’s stock value fell 50 percent, after the Bush Administration began reviewing the Clinton Administration’s policy that allowed federal finding for stem cell research.  - Douglas Melton, a leading scientist advocating funding for ESCR “is typically identified in media reports as chariman of Harvard University’s department of molecular and cellular biology. However, Melton is also a board member of Curis Inc., a commercial stem-cell company.  - Stanford University’s Irving Weissman, who has often urged funding for ESCR, “is also the founder of two companies, SyStemix Inc. and Stem Cells Inc. At Stem Cells - Weissman serves on the board and owns shares.”  - Within the National Institutes of Health, Ronald McKay is a prominent supporter of funding embryonic stem cell research, and has been quoted frequently in the media as an NIH scientitst. But he also helped found - and still owns shares in NeuralSTEM Biopharmaceuticals, a company in College Park Md.

NJ points out that the media have been complicit in concealing the bias of these scientists. “Since Jan. 1 these three researchers have been quoted 216 times in the national media” in support of federal funding for ESCR, “but in only 17 citations were they linked to their companies.”

The money trail runs deep and involves not only scientists but schools as well. In an account that sounds like a conspiracy theory come to life, Munro reveals:  “Johns Hopkins has a licensing deal with Geron that will give the school some of the company’s profits from stem-cell commercialization because a Hopkins scientist, John Gearhart was a co-discoverer of stem cell potential while working with Geron. The other co discoverer, James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin also has a licensing deal that may gain him and his patent holder, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, a share of Geron’s profits. Thomson and Gearhart, along with McKay and two other researchers, are listed as “special contributors” to an NIH report on stem cells released on July 18. Melton, Weissman, Okarma, and Peck are also cited as contributors to the report which did not disclose any of the contributor’s financial interests.” And supported funding ESCR.

(Source: “Mixing Business With Stem Cells,” by Neil Munro, National Journal, July 21, 2001, pages 2348-49)

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