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Charlatans of science

By David van Gend - posted Wednesday, 23 August 2006

The bankruptcy of the cloning lobby is evident in their having to resort to arguments that are not only false, but cruel. It is time to call a halt to their despicable manipulation of Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families.

I have patients devastated with Alzheimer’s disease, families in prolonged grief for the loss of their mother to this degrading affliction, and the last thing anyone should do is raise false hope of treatment in such people.

Let it be clearly stated once more: Alzheimer’s disease is not, and never could be, a candidate for stem cell therapy - not even using the safe therapy of adult stem cells, let alone using inherently dangerous embryonic stem cells.


Professor Colin Masters, Australia’s leading authority on degenerative diseases of the brain, dismissed as “fairyland” any proposal for stem cell therapy in Alzheimer’s. Adelaide embryo researcher, Professor Peter Rathjen, put it more bluntly as “bloody nonsense”. No serious medical expert, here or overseas, will dispute that judgment.

But for the cloning lobby it does not matter that raising hopes of embryonic stem cell therapies for Alzheimer’s is knowingly deceitful and cruel, what matters is that it works with the voters. This effective formula of having scientists lie about diseases like Alzheimer’s and having patient advocacy groups believe those lies so they beat down the doors of politicians - that worked for embryo research in 2002 and maybe it will work again for cloning in 2006.

So again this month Alzheimer’s has been central to the media distortions of public opinion on cloning. We have the sad spectacle of Hazel Hawke on the ABC 7.30 Report, on August 7, 2006, and her daughter pleading for cloning to be allowed in order to treat her mother’s Alzheimer’s. What charlatans of science have been deceiving the Hawke family, and why are they not exposed and shamed for it? We see, on the same day, the editorial of The Australian wallowing in misguided compassion about cloning providing “hope of cures for ailments from Alzheimer's disease to diabetes”. Utter nonsense, and hurtful nonsense.

Let it be stated unequivocally: anyone who speaks of Alzheimer’s disease in the context of stem cell therapies is either a fool or a fraud.

We know who the repeat offenders are - certain politicians (Premier Bracks being the worst), journalists and scientists - and they may choose which category, ignorant or deceitful, they prefer. But either way they must then be shamed into silence.

The Alzheimer’s deceit has been central to the campaign overseas also. During the public hysteria surrounding the death of US President Reagan in 2004 from Alzheimer’s, the Washington Post pointed to the “Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm” for embryonic stem cell research.


But the report correctly noted that Alzheimer’s was not the sort of disease open to stem cell therapy, and that science was being distorted amid the frenzied hype: “A distortion that some admit is not being aggressively corrected by scientists.” Then came an astounding comment by a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "To start with, people need a fairy tale," he said. "Maybe that's unfair, but they need a story line that's relatively simple to understand."

Fairy tales. Fairyland. Nonsense. As our Deputy Prime Minister in 2002, John Anderson, lamented: "If we can't believe leading scientists to give us the real truth, how are we as a society to form the right judgments?"

But that is to misunderstand the motivation of elite scientists and their relationship to ignorant society. As I learnt from discussion with American stem cell scientists at Johns Hopkins University in May, what really matters is that society - especially social conservatives - must not be allowed to limit scientific research. As one cloning advocate put it to me: “If you let them limit us on cloning, where will it stop?”

Anderson’s dismay was validated by Lord Robert Winston, President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Last year Winston reproached his colleagues for their misleading hype, observing that “the desire to source some stem cells from embryos - an ethically controversial area - probably led a number of the field's proponents to hype outcomes just to get liberal legislative approval.” What a devastating admission - but still the calculated hype continues.

Voters will continue to be misled with false science and fairy tales, if that is what is needed to ensure “liberal legislative approval” on cloning, this latest frontier. Scientists will do this partly to ensure that nobody, not even the Parliament, tells them what they can and cannot research, and partly because it doesn’t often rain dollars like this for researchers.

Too bad that scientific integrity can be so easily bought off. Too bad that scarce research money will be diverted away from effective and ethical adult stem cell science. And too bad that families of patients afflicted by Alzheimer’s, who have already suffered enough, will continue to be exploited as useful fools by the cloning lobby.

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About the Author

Dr David van Gend is a Toowoomba GP and Queensland secretary for the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life.

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