David Prentice’s shoddy stem cell scholarship

A reader sent me copy of a letter that will be published in Science this week, criticizing the dishonest tactics of the anti-scientific adult stem cell “advocates” (in quotes because they aren’t really science advocates of any kind—they’re only using it as an issue to limit stem cell research.) Anyway, it raises the interesting question of who you’re going to believe: scientists with expertise in the issues under discussion, or a flunky for Sam Brownback and shill for the religious right?

Adult Stem Cell Treatments for Diseases?

Shane Smith, William Neaves, Steven Teitelbaum

Opponents of research with embryonic stem (ES) cells
often claim that adult stem cells provide treatments for 65
human illnesses. The apparent origin of those claims is a list
created by David A. Prentice, an employee of the Family
Research Council who advises U.S. Senator Sam Brownback
(R-KS) and other opponents of ES cell research.

Prentice has said, “Adult stem cells have now helped
patients with at least 65 different human diseases. It’s real
help for real patients”. On 4 May, Senator Brownback
stated, “I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the
Record the listing of 69 different human illnesses being
treated by adult and cord blood stem cells”.

In fact, adult stem cell treatments fully tested in all
required phases of clinical trials and approved by the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration are available to treat only nine
of the conditions on the Prentice list, not 65 [or 72]. In
particular, allogeneic stem cell therapy has proven useful in
treating hematological malignancies and in ameliorating the
side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Contrary to what
Prentice implies, however, most of his cited treatments
remain unproven and await clinical validation. Other claims,
such as those for Parkinson’s or spinal cord injury, are simply

The references Prentice cites as the basis for his list
include various case reports, a meeting abstract, a newspaper
article, and anecdotal testimony before a Congressional
committee. A review of those references reveals that Prentice
not only misrepresents existing adult stem cell treatments but
also frequently distorts the nature and content of the
references he cites.

For example, to support the inclusion of Parkinson’s
disease on his list, Prentice cites Congressional testimony by
a patient and a physician, a meeting abstract by the
same physician, and two publications that have nothing to
do with stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s. In fact,
there is currently no FDA-approved adult stem cell
treatment–and no cure of any kind–for Parkinson’s disease.
For spinal cord injury, Prentice cites personal opinions
expressed in Congressional testimony by one physician and two patients. There is currently no FDA-approved adult
stem cell treatment or cure for spinal cord injury.

The reference Prentice cites for testicular cancer on his list
does not report patient response to adult stem cell therapy; it simply evaluates different methods of adult stem cell

The reference Prentice cites on non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
does not assess the treatment value of adult stem cell
transplantation; rather, it describes culture conditions for
the laboratory growth of stem cells from lymphoma patients.
Prentice’s listing of Sandhoff disease, a rare disease that
affects the central nervous system, is based on a layperson’s
statement in a newspaper article. There is currently no
cure of any kind for Sandhoff disease.

By promoting the falsehood that adult stem cell treatments
are already in general use for 65 diseases and injuries,
Prentice and those who repeat his claims mislead laypeople
and cruelly deceive patients.


  1. Steve LaBonne says

    I’ve been wondering for years where the fine print in the 9th commandment is that apparently allows lying for Jesus.

  2. Greg Peterson says

    “What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them.”
    – Martin Luther

    (Cited by his secretary, in a letter in Max Lenz, ed., Briefwechsel Landgraf Phillips des Grossmüthigen von Hessen mit Bucer, vol. I.)

  3. PaulC says

    Steve LaBonne: didn’t you post you were a former Catholic? That would be the eighth commandment (apparently for Lutherans too, though I did not know that till I looked up the reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Commandments).

    Just a nitpick, but that’s one of the things that always gets me when the issue comes up of a publicly funded display of the Ten Commandments. It’s almost guaranteed to slight Catholics in the process, and a big part of the reason for separation of church and state is to protect religions from state interference.

    Finally, there are clearly some instances where the ethical decision would be to tell a lie (e.g. to protect someone’s life). It’s pretty hard to believe in a God who needs people to lie for him though.

  4. says

    Isn’t this the list that Jason referred to in response the the PCBOE WaPo op-ed from last week? Didn’t we tell him it was bullshit at the time (taking us less than 10 minutes to figure it out no less)?

    Not that that will convince those types. They’ll just jump to the next poorly-researched or unscientific claim by some “expert.” Or they’ll keep citing this list of 65 treatments for decades after it’s been debunked. It doesn’t even need to sound like convincing BS, as anyone with half a brain should have been able to laugh off that list as BS the second it mentioned a Parkinson’s cure. It’s amazing what flaws people will ignore in data if it supports their crazy arguments (especially when their arguments have no real foundation to start with). In fact, there’s probably a relationship there. The more crazy and off-the-wall some idea is, like ASC being better than ESC, the more likely the proponents of such an idea will ignore obvious flaws in their supporting data and arguments.

    It’s even more depressing because you see how much work Shane Smith, William Neaves, Steven Teitelbaum put into researching and debunking the list, and you see how easy it is for the anti-science types to just generate more bullshit off the top of their heads that we have to spend hours of our time systematically exposing as BS.

  5. Alex says

    The insane thing here is it’s all about murder for these religionists. They somehow equate a 4 day old cluster of cells to human life equal to say, a middle-aged person with a lifetime of memories, accomplishments, a personal identity, etc.. It’s just nuts. They say the “soul” is infused at conception which is retarded. They can’t even define what a soul is let alone detect one or measure it. But that’s all about their dishonest rationalizations. It’s how they deal with anything real that challenges their world view. They disguise their ignorance by using dishonesty in the form of introducing unmeasurable phenomena, like say, a soul. Rediculously transparent manipulation.

  6. Scott Hatfield says

    Hmm. This sounds like food for Al Franken’s thought. Maybe he could pen a new tome—“The Big Heavenly Liar and the Lying Liars Who Lie For Him.”

    (in mock innocence) I believe you, PZ!


  7. dale says

    Lying to further the ambitions of the church goes way back in history. An early historian of the church, Eusubius, subscribed to and documented this philosophy.

  8. Steve LaBonne says

    It’s been multiple decades since I was last in Sunday school, and these days I normally encounter the commandments in their Protestant wingnut numbering. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. ;)

  9. Nymphalidae says

    I saw a TV commercial last night (we have a MythTV box, so I watched this one on purpose!) where there was a fake scientist in a high school chemistry lab telling viewers that adult stems cells had cured like 60 diseases while baby stems cells had cured none.

  10. Greg Peterson says

    In a practical situation, it’s pretty hard to believe that even rabid religionists would prefer a blastocyst to a child. If it were “bring your daughter to work day” at the fertility clinic, and a fire broke out, what sane religionist would recommend that the mother/doctor rescue the petri dishes rather than the darling six-year-old with the nimbus of curly golden hair and trusting tadpole eyes? Apply all the BS logic you like about embryos being humans who deserve protection; when the “rights” of these cell globs go toe-to-cytoplam, most sane people are going to agree that actual PERSON deserves primary consideration.

  11. says

    I would have more respect for the arguments of those opposed to embryonic stem cell research if they would simply say, “We think it’s the immoral taking of human life.” While they do say that, they nevertheless insist on larding their arguments with specious “scientific” claims. They say “adult stem cells cure” and “embryonic stem cells kill”, an argument that depends entirely on stopping embryonic stem cells, since the first successful application of embryonic stem cells to treat a medical condition invalidates their key point. They scream “ABC” for “Abortion causes Breast Cancer”, although the preponderance of medical evidence is against them (they have to cherry-pick the data to make their point).

    They should focus on their pro-life fetish instead of compounding their sin by lying about science (but I fear they’re also lying to themselves).

  12. dale says

    Humans are great mythmakers, and sadly, great myth believers.
    Especially those that have been culturally conditioned since early childhood.
    “We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture.” — Pastor Ray Mummert, Dover, PA after the Dover V Kitzmiller case
    Damn, don’t you just hate those intelligent educated people always piping up with some articulate thoughtful comment just when you think you’ve created a perfect storm of dust and bogus propoganda?

  13. dale says

    What Pastor Ray didn’t say was that ignorant people are a lot easier to control than the educated. A lot easier to get the money out of their pockets also.

  14. Kamensind says

    Sadly people believe what they want to believe often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. To quote the great American poet Paul Simon:

    All lies and jest, still the man hears what he wants to hear
    and disregards the rest……

    More pertinently perhaps I have a question: if human embryos are the moral equivalent of people, will they disappear in the rapture, as well ? Are infertility clinics aware of this pending problem ?

  15. MJ Memphis says

    “More pertinently perhaps I have a question: if human embryos are the moral equivalent of people, will they disappear in the rapture, as well ?”

    Nope. Remember the whole original sin thing? They get to roast in their own tiny section of hell. Or, I suppose, go to Purgatory, depending on your favored interpretation. Although one wonders if an embryo could tell the difference between Purgatory and a clinic freezer.

  16. dale says

    We don’t want to use emryos. We want and need to use the blastocysts, an undifferentiated ball of fertilized cells that preceeds the embryo.
    There is also a scriptural basis for using the blastocysts.
    Tge god of the bible referrs more than once that “the life is in the blood.” Blastocysts do not develop blood until around the 14th day after fertilization, so, they are effectively not alive until then

  17. Gloria Castonguay says

    I have no opposition to this unless they think they will kill to get them,then,that is different. I do not think that is the case and hope I am correct.

  18. Todd says

    Ok, so it’s only 9 treatments as of your writing. How many does ES have….can you say ZERO. To have the govt pay for research in an area that has no scientific evidence of being able to do greater things than non controversial adult stem cells seems ridicules to me. Let private donations sponsor this type of research, not my tax dollars.

  19. Sarah says

    Ethics and religion aside, adult stem cells ARE treating real diseases and real people. I’m not an expert on the subject, but just by doing a little Internet research and finding sited studies I was able to see that ES is not able to show the same results as adult stem cells. I notice there are no references in this post to back up your critique.

    I would also like to know why the scientific community is not able or willing to attempt to put differences aside and work on making positive differences for the greater good. I don’t think bashing someone with opposing views gets us anywhere, except viewing the person who has to resort to such negativity as less credible and less respected. I love and cherish living in a country where we’re all able to have your own views and opinions and express them freely, but grow up and use your words! Do you have to use such negative rhetoric to get your point across?

  20. Bev Searl says

    I have a couple questions after reading your article about David Prentice and adult vs embryonic stem cell research. In your article you state, “In fact, adult stem cell treatments fully tested in all required phases of clinical trials and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are available to treat only nine of the conditions on the Prentice list, not 65 [or 72].”
    How many treatments are there using embryonic stem cell research? I believe the answer is NONE. After years of killing babies to do your research you have NO treatments but you will try to sabotage the progress using adult stem cells where there are (by your own words) 9 conditions already approved and in use. Why would you do that? How does it hurt you to admit adult stem cells may be the answer. What is your motive for pushing embryonic stem cell research? I would suggest those who listen to your arguments go to the source and read for themselves the difference between embryonic and adult stem cells and the moral and ethical reasons as well as the health of the patient leans toward adult stem cell research over emybryonic.

  21. Bev says

    you know I didn’t take the time to read the other comments before making my own and now I have to add a couple things. First it’s funny that those who call us “religous right wing fanatics” ignorant are the same people who have to use expletives to get their point across. You all seem a bit angry and wanting to lash out at a God you don’t even believe in. We may go on faith about heaven and hell but I can tell you one thing – if I believe in heaven and hell and its not real I just die. If you don’t believe and its real guess what?

  22. Britomart says

    My goodness, a new fundie invasion !

    Bev, google Pascals Wager some time. You are making a lot of assumptions about your god, its really not as simple as you think.

    No babies are killed. None. Ever. We are not lashing out against god, but we are pretty annoyed at the followers who want us to behave as if your god was real. Real children die of diabetes, stem cells could help there. Real people have parkinsons and shortened lives because of it. Real people have kidney failure.

    Get informed, and if you have information, share the links.

    Thank you kindly

  23. Nick Gotts says

    if I believe in heaven and hell and its not real I just die. If you don’t believe and its real guess what?

    What if they are real, but God sends smug Christians to hell, and honest atheists to heaven?