Jul 13 2005

Stem Cell Snake Oil

Published by at 7:08 pm under All General Discussions,Stem Cell Debate

I have now totally cleaned up the exrtaneous text which had nothing to do with stem cells

I do not come out against embryonic stem cell research from the moral high ground – though it does exist. I come out against it because, from a scientific view, it is something being hyped and marketed by people who are playing on the real life challenges and fears of ill individuals. I use the term snake oil when referring to embryonic stem cells because of this misleading hype. To deliberately draw a connection to the old snake oil salesmen who did the same thing – peddle empty promises to those in need of miracles to make a buck. I have a BS in biology and I do know what I am talking about here, and will challenge anyone to a debate on the subject.

Because what I most want on this subject is truth. I do not want people to think there is some magical cure in the embryo for the taking – there very well may not be. I do not want people to spend their last energies and financial resources on a fools errand guided by some greedy flim-flam artist. There is more to this subject than the layman understands, and it is the lack of detailed understanding of the science of biology that allows these sales people to hype the potential of embryonic stem cells. And I do not want people to feel the pull to make a moral decision on life based on empty promises. Why waste your morals for nothing?

First some definitions and then some background. I will clearly indicate something as a fact of science by simply annotating the sentence with a (F). I will identify what is a reasoned conclusion by an (RC), and that means it is a conclusion that can be reasonably be derived based on the facts. Wild speculation will be identified by (WC) and requires the suspension of facts – it is the realm of fantasy. Finally, biology is the science of life underpinning medicine. Medicine and health cannot look to solutions which violate the scientific facts of biology, anymore than engineers can violate the science of physics in building machines or structures. So when a biological fact collides with a medical hope, desire or empty promise we have fantasy- and this is where people are being sold the medical version of a perputual motion machine.

OK – facts that we all must abide by when dealing with this subject.

– A human embryo is a unique human individual (F).
– Embryo is a term referring to a stage of the life, usually applicable to a set of various species, one being humans or homo sapien, sapiens (F).
– Embryo is to baby as egg is to hatchling, it does not define the form of life or the specific species (e.g., rat embryo vs a human embryo) (F).
– The embryo created from the egg of a women and semen of a man is a unique, one of a kind, for all time, individual that can only be created by the process of conception (the fusing of the egg’s and semen’s DNA into a viable new individual) (F).
– The human embryo is a distinct individual organism from its mother since it has distinct DNA, which is a combination of mother and father (F). This can be verified using the same, legally valid DNA tests used in courtrooms everday in this country to convict murderers, rapists etc (F).
– Some of the basic forms of life are cell, tissue, organ, organism, etc. You can have single celled organism like an ameoba. But all organisms must be from a single species. Therefore a rat is not a fly. And each species is uniquely identifiable through its DNA – among other features which were used prior to DNA (e.g., vertebrae) (F). Therefore a human embryo is a human, homo sapien sapien.
– Organisms contain one or more cells. Cells can be structured into tissues and organs and fluids to make up the organism (F). All the cells of humans, no matter what structure they are in (i.e., tissue or organ) will have DNA that is unique to that organism, and which can only be from one species (F). Therefore a ‘blob of cells’ is cannot belong to an a human organism unless it has its DNA.

Why all this background? Because of the unrealistic claims about embryos. An embryo made from conception is a once for all time event never to be repeated. No one living today will ever have their DNA repeated exactly, and never was there a copy of them here before. That is the absolute rareity and preciousness of a life. Once for all time.

Ironically, embryos that are clones of a living being do not fall into this category of rareness. The original organism is obviously not destroyed before it has a chance to be the next Einstein or Pastuer or Mozart. So the embryos made from clones have very little ‘value’ in being unique for all time (RC). But because we act out of emotions fed to us by science fiction movies we find these embryos sacrosinct while the ones from conception valueless (WC). That’s like being afraid of an X-Ray machine because it my turn you into an insect (WC). But that is the level of comprehension we have in the general public these days.

OK. There are two classes of stem cells: embryonic and adult. The snake oil theory is the embryonic stem cells provide more potential because they are undifferentiated – they have not transformed into a cell type (WC). Note the WC on this one. There are 30,000-40,000 genes in the human body. Yep, they are not even sure of the number of genes which can vary by 25-33%. How is that for scientific accuracy.

All these gense must play a part in the differentiation process (F). Now someone is going to challenge the F on this one, but let me remind them the control of genes includes the turning on and off of the genes. You cannot accidently have the wrong gene on at the wrong time, so they all play a role in that the right ones must be off at the right time.

So we have 30-4oK things to control while we transform a embryonic stem cell into a target cell type (e.g., neuron). It is more than likely it takes a sequence of these genes since it takes a certain mix of specialized proteins to create the nueron (vs a muscle cell) (RC). If I wildy said 100 proteins need to be created in the proper sequence and amount that could be a reasonable example (RC). Each protein to be manufactured has a complex trigger of temperature, PH-level, precursor proteins and time to produce – at a minimum (RC). I am sure I missed some conditions but gives us 4 things to control, and they varied for each of the 100 proteins, which is 400 things to address. Not to mention sequencing them in the right order.

The mathematical combinatorials become quite large quite fast, but I will do a simple addition to speed things up. We have 400 proteins sequences to get right(plus 35,000 genes to control correctly, but set that aside). If it takes me a week to set up and run and analyze results on one test, while only varying only one of the 400 parameters, and assume it takes me 3 times through the parameters to get it right (that would like be winning the Lotto in 3 tries) that would result in more than 23 years of testing. 23 years to get one target cell type transformed from an embryonic stem cell (RC). Then it has to be tested on animals, humans, productized, etc.

23 years and it would mean being the luckiest person alive to do it that quickly. Has the embryonic stem cell promoters ever leveled with the public about the scope of this effort? No. So I see the claim that embryonic stem cells represent a better chance of success as Wild Conjecture because the combinatorials are terrible – especially when compared to adult stem cells.

Hold on you say! What do you mean the combinatorials are worse?! Well, an embryonic stem cell has not differentiated at all (F). Adult stem cells have differentiated into a generalized class of cell which only needs some final conditions to transform into the target cells (F). Therefore adult stem cells are partially the way there – the very fact that somehow equates to them be the worst choice for researchers. Being partiall there means there is less work to find the final triggers (RC). And there are therapies and results in Adult stem cells which support this to be the case (F).

So embryonic stem cells have farther to go to get a useful result (RC). And to date no one has shown in animals any ability to prodice any controlled, safe trasnformations into target cells(F). Why a scientist needs a human stem cell when a chimpanzee stem cell could as easily be used to unlock the triggers and sequence control has never been explained either (RC). Chimpanzees and humans share 99% of their genes. The triggers for muscles in both species could therefore be 99% identical (RC). So why all the fuss about human embryos when all the mammal embryos and stem cells out there could be used to find the basic tools and processes?

Money (RC). Adult stem cells show more promise now by far (F). Therapies are in human testing and breakthroughs are coming every month (F). But you cannot patent the results of adult stem cells since you cannot patent a human being. Sadly, too many snake oil salesmen believe an embryo is not a human being in a court of law – so they naively think the path to riches is through embryonic stem cells. ]

If anyone wants to prove to me they have unlocked this challenge they can show me with animal DNA – just like the comsetic industry is required to do before humans touch their lipstick. Until then I wouldn’t spend a nickel on human research.

There are other challenges embryonic cures face that are not necessarily a problem for adult stem cells. That is because the optimal adult stem cell cure is to use the patient’s adult stem cells to create the replacement cells or tissues or organs. That eliminates tissue rejection issues straight off. But you have to understand the nature of stem cell therapies to see the real challenge – deadly genetic combinations.

Tissue rejection happens with transplants – whole organs or limbs being attached (F). Stem cell therapies are were new cells are grown intertwined with existing cells to heal at the cellular level (F). This is like mixing two blood types (RC). We have no idea what happens at the cellular level when you combine two DNA types (RC). Will the two cell groups work together or undercut each other? That is the big unknown in the embryonic stem cell research.

The embryonic research has shown no results comparable to adult stem cells, has the tougher combinatorial problem to solve to achieve a target cell type, will take decades of research and doesn’t require human DNA to create the basic process and tools to control the transformation. And it has potential problems with tissue rejection and gene intermixing at the cellular level.

This is why I call it snake oil. This is not the picture presented to people wishing for all their might for a cure. Every ounce of energy, money, effort these needy people put towards embryonic stem cells is something they could have, and should have, put into adult stem cells. This is hard mathematics. 2 billion is more than 2 thousand. That may be the difference between the number of steps to success between embryonic research and adult research, respectively. And when you are praying for a medical miracle to occur in time – the fewer steps the better. The fewer hurtles (like tissue rejection) the better as well.

So – when I say snake oil I am talking about flim-flam propoganda being peddled for money. And I feel it is important to explain this to all those holding out hope they can get real help soon – not empty promises.

Thanks for reading this long post.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Stem Cell Snake Oil”

  1. Decision '08 says:

    Quick Shots: Same Ol’ Song and Dance

    Note to AJStrata…resignation not accepted! The Coalition needs you, dammit!…

  2. Pererro says:

    Is the Coalition supposed to do stuff? I get so confused…

  3. Pererro says:


    Well, I thought this was well-said. And, Skippy did not give me the promised linkage for referrals. So, I’m made at the left. 😉

    Seriously, though, I post a lot of Transhuman stuff, and I though this bit had some good balance points.

  4. […] Note to AJStrata…resignation not accepted! The Coalition needs you, dammit!… […]