From the June 2009 Scientific American Magazine | 4 comments

Reality Check: The Inevitable Disappointments from Stem Cells
The latest but far from final chapter on the controversial research at least starts well

Happy days are here again for the embryonic stem cell (ESC) research community, or at least they should be. The day after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president in January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration green-lighted an application from Geron Corporation to pursue the first phase I clinical trial of an ESC-based therapy (in this case, for spinal cord injury).

President Obama, who ran on a pro-ESC research platform, cannot take credit for that regulatory first, which was largely a coincidence of timing. But he has already made good on his promise to lift the burdensome restrictions on federally funded ESC studies imposed by his predecessor in 2001. Laboratories receiving federal money are once again free to work on the cell lines of their choice (with some important restrictions).

So scientists at last mostly have what they have been asking for. And the public should now prepare to be disappointed.

Perhaps “disappointed” is an overstatement, but a realistic recalibration of expectations is surely in order. The problem with turning a scientific issue into a political football is that the passionate rough-and-tumble of the game can leave the science itself rather scuffed. When opponents of ESC research likened it to genocide and Nazi concentration camp experiments, its proponents countered by emphasizing how irreplaceable ESCs were and how miraculous the cures arising from them could be. Whether or not those claims wandered into rhetorical excess, at least a few false hopes and misimpressions have probably been left behind.