Troubled Cancer Charity Embroiled in Embryonic Stem Cell Debate

If dealing with the public relations nightmare over its on-off-on funding of Planned Parenthood wasn't enough, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure cancer charity last week also got entangled, somewhat bizarrely, in the debate over human embryonic stem (ES) cell research. The reason it was odd is that Komen, which is a major source of breast cancer research grants, says it doesn't plan to fund such stem cell work and never has.

"Contrary to circulating online reports, Komen has not 'de-funded' any grantee based on human embryonic stem cell research conducted at their institution," says a 5 February 2012 statement by Susan G. Komen for the Cure. "To this point, embryonic stem cell research has not shown promise for application in breast cancer," the charity notes.

In addition to its patient advocacy and aid for women's health care, Komen has more than 500 active research grants, totaling around $300 million, according to the charity. But last week, at least for a brief time, it appeared to some that Komen was taking a newly decisive stand against human embryonic stem cells by pulling cancer research funds from organizations that also conduct research on the ES cells. "Komen Also Stops Funding Embryonic Stem Cell Research Centers" blared a headline on, an online publication that says it "reaches more than 500,000 pro-life advocates."

That article, which was echoed loudly and without any confirmation in the unruly realm of blogs and news publications penned by those on both sides of the abortion debate, offered several pieces of evidence to support its dramatic claim.

It noted that last year Karen Malec of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, a group that contends having an abortion can lead to breast cancer, analyzed Komen's tax forms and highlighted that the charity gave about $12 million in research funds to five institutions where human embryonic stem cell research was conducted (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, University of Kansas Medical Center, U.S. National Cancer Institute, the Society for Women's Health Research, Yale University). That analysis apparently led to pressure from pro-life groups to stop Komen from supporting any research at those organizations. For example, LifeNews cites a letter from Leonard P. Blair, Bishop of Toledo, asking people to redirect donations to Komen:

For some time, moral questions have been raised from various quarters about the research funded by the Komen Foundation. The Bishops of Ohio have discussed this and have looked into the matter. As best we can determine, at present the Komen Foundation does not fund cancer research that employs embryonic stem cells. However, their policy does not exclude that possibility. They are open to embryonic stem cell research, and may very well fund such research in the future.

The article in LifeNews then notes, "On November 30, 2011, Komen quietly added a new statement to its web site stating that it does not support embryonic stem cell research but supports the kinds that do not involve the destruction of human life." It was that statement, which is no longer available on Komen's Web site, but a copy of which was posted last week on a Mother Jones blog, that led LifeNews last week to confusingly declare that Komen no longer funded the "embryonic stem cell research centers." Some interpreted the report to mean that Komen money would no longer be going to the five institutions named by Malec. "Komen Halted Funding for $12 Million in Stem Cell Research Like We Wouldn't Notice" fumed one blog upset at the idea.

But Christopher Umbricht, a Komen grantee at Johns Hopkins University who looks for molecular markers that predict the prognosis of breast cancer, tells ScienceInsider that to the best of his knowledge, his nearly $600,000 in funding from the charity continues. "I have heard nothing of a Hopkins investigator having any issue with Komen funding," adds Landon S. King, vice-dean for research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In its statement released yesterday, Komen sought to put the confusion to rest, declaring:

While Susan G. Komen for the Cure does not conduct research, it does fund innovative research projects in leading institutions worldwide. Komen has a long history of funding groundbreaking research to fulfill its promise to save lives and end breast cancer forever. A recent review of our funded grants revealed that human embryonic stem cell tissue has not been used in breast cancer research funded by Komen. Embryonic stem cells are currently considered to have the most potential for use in the regeneration of diseased or injured tissues. Whether embryonic stem cells will have a role or will be of value in the fight against breast cancer has not been clearly determined. To this point, embryonic stem cell research has not shown promise for application in breast cancer. Contrary to circulating online reports, Komen has not "de-funded" any grantee based on human embryonic stem cell research conducted at their institution. Komen will continue to focus its research efforts on the most promising areas of science which have the greatest potential for breast cancer patients.