Bioethics News

Stem cell Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder    

What happened to the disgraced Italian surgeon who dazzled the world with artificial tracheas built up with stem cells, Paolo Macchiarini? Despite all the hype, several of his patients eventually died; others are still seriously ill. The ensuing debacle dragged Sweden’s Karolinska Institute into the mire and Swedish police are investigating whether he should be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

At the moment Macchiarini is the head of a research team in bioengineering and regenerative medicine at the University of Kazan, in Tatarstan, about 800 kilometers east of Moscow. But Russian authorities do not allow him to do clinical work. Instead he is confined to doing research on baboons.

Unfortunately, the story of the Italian Icarus is the story of many research projects with stem cells –noisily rising and rising and rising and then silently falling out of sight. Very few stem cell therapies have reached stage IV of clinical trials.

As journalist Michael Brooks points out in the BMJ, stem cell research is a field plagued by unrealistic expectations. One study showed that 70% of newspaper articles about stem cell research have stated that clinical applications are “just around the corner,” “in the near future,” or “within 5 to 10 years or sooner.” 

“This is not simply a problem of media hype,” writes Brooks. “In a surprisingly large number of cases, the source of these unrealistic expectations can be traced back to the scientists themselves.”

Another source of false hope is the very success of some treatments.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.