September 27, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Stem Cell Conflict Erupting in Ireland

Ireland stem cells
Ireland stem cell billboard.

A new article out by Susan Mitchell covers the key elements of a brewing, serious conflict in Ireland over stem cells. You can read the piece here, but warning you have to pay to read it.

Here in this blog post I analyze the situation and give important quotes from the article.

A pro-adult stem cell and anti-embryonic stem cell (ESC) research organization was recently launched in Ireland: the Adult Stem Cell Foundation of Ireland (ASFI).

In my opinion ASFI seems in many ways to be similar to the U.S. Family Research Council (FRC) that American organization that says all adult stem cell research, no matter what, is good and that all ESC is bad.

An example of the extreme, sometimes anti-scientific nature of the FRC is their disrespectfully calling the American National Science Foundation (NSF) “ignorant”.

Beyond America, not surprisingly there are some folks in Ireland who are strongly opposed to ESC and just as forcefully pushing the use of adult stem cells (see billboard above: photo credit Stephen Sullivan).

There are also a number of newspaper and Internet articles popping up spreading propaganda about stem cells in Ireland. A good example is this piece promoting the myth that adult stem cell therapies can be used to treat 70 conditions (much like that road sign).

While the ASFI was just recently launched, an older and arguably more concerning organization in Ireland is called Youth Defence, a militant pro-life organization that harasses individual stem cell researchers and spreads misinformation that interferes with public education. Youth Defence, an offshoot of the pro-life Life Institute,  just put out this propaganda-like piece.

Dr. Stephen Sullivan, Director of the Irish Stem Cell Foundation (a member of the International Consortium of Stem Cell Networks and most often in agreement with the top stem cell organization in the world, the International Society for Stem Cell Research or ISSCR), is on the front lines of this stem cell battle.

Dr. Sullivan told me:

Our stem cell organisations need to do more to give the patient and
care givers a better distinction between an experimental protocol and a
stem cell treatment that has passed clinical trial as there is a world
of difference in terms of the risk/benefit ratio.

It appears many of the same issues roiling the stem cell field in America are manifest in Ireland as well.

The claim in Ireland by the sellers of adult stem cell that 70 diseases can be treated by adult stem cells resonates here the U.S. because many adult stem cell sellers make similar claims. Here many of these folks are making such claims with the goal of making money either by directly selling the treatments to patients or by acting as facilitators who direct patients to dubious clinics. It is unclear if that is the case in Ireland.

Irish reporter Mitchell asked Professor Timothy O’Brien, director of  the organization Remedi, the Galway-based research centre focused on the application of stem cells in treatment, about the 70 treatments claim. Her article reads:

Professor Timothy O’Brien, director of Remedi, said there were “very few” diseases that could be treated clinically using cord blood. He advised this newspaper to contact the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) for the most up-to-date information on cord blood…..Interestingly, O’Brien’s colleague, Remedi’s scientific director, Professor Frank Barry, sits on the board of the new foundation…. Barry baulked at claims that some 70 diseases could be treated using stem cells.

The Mitchell article continues:

“Like all countries in Europe, Ireland must look to the future to protect the population and be ready for new treatments. We cannot simply look back and say: ‘I wish we had prepared for that’….

Dr. Sullivan summed it up as follows:

People intuitively realize that if you can't yet treat type 2 diabetes yet with stem
cells in California, you can't in Ireland either.

A key thing to remember too is the more stem cell researchers
collaborate on the education front, the more time is freed up to push
the science forward in the laboratory. You can look at it as one of
the good things about the world-wide recession, due to limited
resources people have to work together and work more effectively for
the common good.

Mitchell ends her article with the following thought:

There is a need for open debate on stem cells. For some, the advances already being made are proof enough that cord blood banking is worth the price. But parents deserve a clearer understanding of what it can – or cannot – be used for at this stage.

My take on all this?

The Irish Stem Cell Foundation needs our support in the brewing conflict in Ireland. Update. ASFI has emailed me subsequently to the original publication of this blog post to clarify their mission, which they state as:

 ASFI was set up to promote accurate information and national awareness on adult stem cell research and therapies worldwide.  

I hope to learn more about ASFI in the coming weeks and engage in a productive, respectful dialogue with them.

More broadly those of us internationally promoting research into future safe and effective stem cell treatments need to stick together in our efforts to advance our cause, help patients, and educate the public.

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