Excitement is building in the world of stem cell research, with breakthroughs being announced regularly, if not daily. But why concentrate on both adult and embryonic stem cell research – or primarily on embryonic stem cells – when adult stem cells are proving to be more promising?

Montreal Neurological Institute researcher Freda Miler says cells found in skin can form into nerve, muscle and heart cells, although some scientists are poo-pooing the finding. “It’s not enough to look like a liver cell, you have to behave like one, too,” cautions University of Toronto stem cell researcher Peter Zandstra.

Nature, the reputable science journal, recently reported that a team of U.S. scientists has isolated a stem cell from adult bone marrow that can produce all the tissue types in the body. This raises hope for the cure of many diseases and ailments ranging from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to AIDS and spinal cord injuries. Another study was also released in the journal Nature which found stem cells could replace damaged brain cells and diminish symptoms of Parkinson’s in mice.

With verification from other laboratories, these findings could increase pressure on scientists to halt experimentation on embryonic stem cells and at last go full-tilt on adult stem cell research. Not only would it be ethically and morally right but some of the risks involved would decrease significantly. If stem cell therapies were derived from the patient himself, there would be much less tissue rejection; some researchers also say adult (or somatic) stem cells are more easily controlled than embryonic stem cells, thus reducing the possibility of tumors forming.

“If this is absolutely true, I think it will change everything,” explains Dr. Abdullah Daar of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics. “Should adult stem cells ever prove to be as good as (embryonic) cells, then why would anybody bother with embryonic stem cells?”

Although this is extraordinary news, it isn’t the first breakthrough of its kind but it is one of the few instances that has been covered prominently in the mainstream press. Writer Wesley Smith noted in the Weekly Standard that on several occasions the mainstream press has either failed to cover or appropriately cover breakthroughs in adult stem cell research whereas embryonic stem cell discoveries are given front-page treatment. He cited as examples of adult stem cell research stories that were ignored by the mainstream press, a July 2001 story in the Harvard University Gazette which reported that mice with Type 1 diabetes were completely cured of their disease using adult stem cells and a December 2001 story in the peer-reviewed Tissue Engineering in which researchers reported they will be capable of rebuilding bone using adult fat cells.

Smith is joined by Celeste McGovern, who in her “Brave New World” column for The Report writes about the suppressed story of adult stem cells. She recently noted that a woman near her death was entirely cured of lupus and has been fine for 21 months now thanks to adult stem cell therapy. According to McGovern WebMD, an on-line magazine, was the only publication that ran the story. “Real people are already being cured of real diseases using adult stem cells. It’s not some theoretical distant dream,” said McGovern.

For once, there was no downplaying this time around though. The June 21 editions of the Globe and Mail and National Post carried the story on the front page. Mary Ellen Douglas, national co-ordinator for Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim, that as such success stories are given prominence in the media, perhaps public and political support for embryonic stem cell research will decrease.