Stem Cell Exaggeration?

Yesterday, I criticized some of the support for California’s Proposition 71 on stem cell research because it implied a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Fellow TR blogger Erika Jonietz countered with a post of her own, writing that “singling out…

Sep 21, 2004

Yesterday, I criticized some of the support for California’s Proposition 71 on stem cell research because it implied a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Fellow TR blogger Erika Jonietz countered with a post of her own, writing that “singling out the tenuous Alzheimer’s link as a tactic being used to ‘sell’ California voters on stem cells strikes me as a bit disingenuous.”

I’m in favor of more research instead of less. It’s my understanding (such as from Rick Weiss’s Washington Post article) that many of the possible approaches to a better biological understanding of Alzheimer’s disease would require “not just stem cells from spare embryos donated by fertility clinicsit would also require the creation of cloned human embryos made from cells taken from Alzheimer’s patients.” That seems to be an ethical line that most are unwilling to cross anytime soon.

Public perception matters too. Science scholar Daniel Sarewitz has written,

Little has been learned, it appears, from the promise of nuclear energy “too cheap to meter,” elusive miracle of gene therapies, and genetically modified foods that will end hunger. Under the guise of rationality, and through appeals to the compassion of voters, advocates of Proposition 71 advance their own fundamentalism about science, and in the process have sought and will likely gain a special exemption from the rigors of democracy. But history is very clear on this point: such exemptions are bound to breed abuse and backlash.

It would be just as easy to leave Alzheimer’s disease off the list of potential diseases that can be approached with stem cells, or perhaps tack it on to the end; there’s still an impressive list to be had, with Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, etc. But Cures for California, the main support group for Prop 71, lists Alzheimer’s near the top. People take these claims seriously. Is it fair to offer false or exaggerated hopes?