A Menlo Park company that a little over a year ago announced it would begin testing embryonic stem cells on human beings as a possible treatment for spinal-cord injuries has abandoned the project.
The company, Geron Corporation, issued a news release on Nov. 14 citing “capital scarcity and uncertain economic conditions” for giving up the research. The company said it would instead focus on more promising cancer treatments.
As a consequence, Geron will eliminate 66 full-time positions -- or about 38% of its workforce of 175. Nature magazine reported that the price of Geron's stock fell from $2.28 to $1.50 per share the day the news release was issued.
In a Nov. 3 financial statement, Geron reported it had suffered a loss of $19.5 million for the third quarter of 2011, with a net loss of $65 million for the first nine months of 2011.
“For patients paralyzed by spinal cord injuries, Geron Corp.'s stem cell research was the shining hope,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “The biotech firm showered scientists with millions of dollars to develop a treatment to reverse spinal damage. The therapy was the first treatment derived from embryonic stem cells to be cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for testing in humans.”
The Times noted that, aside from the bad economy and skittish investors, “the ethical problems of using cells that were created by destroying embryos compounded the company's difficulties raising capital.”
Only passing reference was made in the Times to the successful use of adult stem cells, which pose substantially fewer ethical problems. “The emergence of an alternative type of flexible cell that isn't made from embryos may have diverted funding and attention from trials like Geron's,” the Times paraphrased Dr. George Q. Daley of Children's Hospital Boston as saying.
The treatment of adult stem cell successes in the Times and other mainstream publications was not lost on Wesley J. Smith, a lawyer and senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute Center on Human Exceptionalism.
“Since embryonic stem cells were first derived, the media has told a materially unbalanced story,” Smith said in an interview with Catholic News Agency.
Successful clinical trials using adult stem cells “have either been ignored totally, or generally underplayed as story after story has claimed adult approaches offer more limited benefits than embryonic,” Smith told CNA.
“No one forced editors and reporters to ignore the press releases and published studies that described the ongoing and very encouraging adult stem cell successes,” Smith said. “They simply usually chose to overplay embryonic and underplay adult stem cell research in their reporting.”
Smith told CNA that a “disdain for pro-life views” and “anti-Catholic” feelings affect mainstream media coverage, making it important that alternative media “keep setting the record straight.”
Geron’s announcement came just two days after a conference entitled "Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture" began at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the 250 participants as the conference got under way.
"Since human beings are endowed with immortal souls and are created in the image and likeness of God, there are dimensions of human existence that lie beyond the limits of what the natural sciences are competent to determine,” said Pope Benedict. “If these limits are transgressed, there is a serious risk that the unique dignity and inviolability of human life could be subordinated to purely utilitarian considerations. But if instead these limits are duly respected, science can make a truly remarkable contribution to promoting and safeguarding the dignity of man.”
"In this sense, the potential benefits of adult stem cell research are very considerable, since it opens up possibilities for healing chronic degenerative illnesses by repairing damaged tissue... The improvement that such therapies promise would constitute a significant step forward in medical science, bringing fresh hope to sufferers and their families alike,” said the pope. “For this reason, the Church naturally offers her encouragement to those who are engaged in conducting and supporting research of this kind, always with the proviso that it be carried out with due regard for the integral good of the human person and the common good of society.”
Pope Benedict noted that “it is tempting for scientists and policy-makers to brush aside ethical objections and to press ahead with whatever research seems to offer the prospect of a breakthrough. Those who advocate research on embryonic stem cells in the hope of achieving such a result make the grave mistake of denying the inalienable right to life of all human beings from the moment of conception to natural death. The destruction of even one human life can never be justified in terms of the benefit that it might conceivably bring to another.”