In the high-stakes world of stem cell research, success or failure can hinge on the turn of a phrase

it sall about Word Choices

March 11, 2007|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

It looked like Maryland legislators had stepped back from their support of embryonic stem cell research by striking the word "embryo" and replacing it with the nonspecific phrase "certain material" in a 2006 bill meant to fund such work.

But looks can be deceiving. "We substituted language that really meant the same thing," said former Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the much-amended bill, which likely wouldn't have passed had the loaded word "embryo" remained. "It was changed to get votes. ... It was a big win."

Business leaders, researchers, lawmakers and others dealing with controversial aspects of stem cell science know that building consensus means carefully crafting messages, as it does with so many other polarizing topics, such as abortion and war.

That has led both supporters and opponents of various stem cell work to wield often ambiguous - or particularly pointed - words in the hopes it will help sell certain messages to one another and the public.

Some said it can mean the difference in getting funding for a project, investors to back a young company or politicians to make something a law. Others say it's just misleading.

Those on opposite sides of the issues generally acknowledge the spin - using words like "adoption" to talk about saving embryos from being used in research and "breakthrough" to describe incremental advances in embryonic science. But they also say it's necessary with so much at stake.

Stem cells could lead to life-saving treatments as well as jobs and new businesses, many contend. Still, that hasn't been enough to alleviate moral concerns over the destruction of early-stage embryonic cells or using later-stage, adult cells taken from aborted fetuses.

It has led to impassioned debate in legislatures and in church basements, in living rooms and boardrooms with people crafting arguments to suit agendas in the hopes they can manipulate emotions - or avoid triggering them.

"It's an age-old political tactic to choose words that advance one's cause and disadvantage one's opponent," said James C. Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington and a congressman from 1993 to 2005. "Words have great impact emotionally and people use them, particularly in the political sphere, accordingly."

But the ethical debate often gets in the way, leading some scientists to relocate to countries with friendlier stem cell climes, investors to shun companies caught up in the fray and bans to be placed on federal funding for certain work.

"There's an awful lot of hype in this field on both sides," said Dale A. Carlson, spokesman for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

His organization was created to help administer $3 billion in stem cell funding grants and loans for the state's businesses and researchers. The first funding round there will focus solely on embryonic projects.

"People like to say embryonic stem cells never cured anything [so the research should be stopped]. Well, my 4-year-old hasn't finished medical school and won a Nobel Prize yet. Should I stop educating her?" Carlson said. "Clearly their objective is to starve the field of research until it fades away."

Viewpoints

Critics of such work say it destroys life by killing embryos that might have otherwise become children, using words like "baby," "embryo adoption" and "immoral" to describe the science.

Proponents use labels such as "innovation" and "cure" and say the embryonic cells under discussion could lead to saving lives.

The word games also play out on the adult stem cell side of the industry, which often is praised for a seeming lack of controversy, but derided because they're supposedly less adaptable than embryonic cells.

Baltimore's Osiris Therapeutics is fond of pointing out how much closer to commercialization their adult bone marrow cells are and that they're taken from grown-up volunteers, not embryos.

Adult stem cell researchers also tout the fact that embryonic cells have yet to prove their promise in human clinical trials and have been shown to produce tumors in testing.

"There's a great degree of ignorance generally with regard to stem cell science and stem cell technology, a great degree of emotionality attached to the coverage," said Martin McGlynn, chief executive of StemCells Inc. in California. "It just further fuels the flames."

McGlynn's company works with adult stem cells, the kind taken from fetuses, but he acknowledges it takes some digging to learn this. On its Web site's home page, StemCells Inc. says it is using "cells derived from adult (i.e. non-embryonic) brain tissue."

"You start off with more general descriptors. As you go deeper and deeper into the Web site ... it really peels the onion," McGlynn said, adding that it was not an effort to mislead or avoid controversy.

Many in the industry said that much of the stem cell science controversy comes from an inextricable link to the abortion debate.

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