Stem Cell Research: Is Progress Delayed Progress Denied?

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Aug. 10, 2001 -- The Bush administration's decision to allow strictly limited federal funding for stem cell research fits the classic definition of a compromise: a decision that makes nobody happy.

Although the ruling gives the go-ahead to research using existing stem cell lines derived from embryos that have already been destroyed, it puts the lid on public support for investigation using cells derived from newly-created embryos -- such as those discarded daily by fertility clinics -- and restricts scientists to working with currently available stem cell lines.

Those limitations could hobble scientists who are just beginning to explore the breathtaking possibilities of embryonic stem cells -- immature, undeveloped cells that have the ability to evolve into any of the roughly 220 different cell types in the body, depending upon how they are manipulated in a developing embryo or in a lab dish.

"The president indicated that there are 60 [stem cell] lines in existence that can presently be used. To my knowledge, no one is aware of the manner in which that number was determined or where those lines are located. If in fact the field continues its explosive growth, 60 or even 600 lines may be too restrictive, and that may seriously impede progress," says Ira Black, MD, chairman of neuroscience at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J.


In addition, Black notes, despite what the president claims, those cells lines are not necessarily immortal, "and 60 now could be far fewer than in a very short period of time. I think we're all concerned that if we run out of resource material, there's not going to be any science to be done while patients are languishing paralyzed, in bed, in wheelchairs, with diabetes, having heart attacks, having strokes, spinal cord injury, etc."

In fact, many of the cell lines are likely to be in private hands, and the owners -- drug companies, biotech firms, and other corporations -- may be unwilling to part with proprietary property or share trade secrets.

"Private industry doesn't publicize. They have their trustees and their shareholders to answer to, so they have to aim what they're doing at what's most lucrative -- not necessarily what's going to be driven by the needs of society. So even if the president is trying to do the right thing for society, he has focused it on the interests of private business and big money," says Fred Roisen, PhD, professor and chairman of anatomical sciences and neurobiology at the University of Louisville, Ky, in an interview with WebMD.


Roisen, Black, and other researchers say that while they're grateful Bush didn't follow through on his campaign pledge to ban embryonic stem cell research entirely -- despite broad public support for such research -- they aren't breaking out the champagne either. In fact, the limits imposed on embryonic stem cell research could delay or even prevent discovery of new treatments for Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and spinal cord injuries, they contend.

"The president is saying, 'We're going to tie one of your hands behind your back -- now go and do research," Roisen tells WebMD. Although he works with stem cells derived from cadavers or from living donors and is theoretically not affected by the restrictions, Roisen says he needs "the baseline information on the embryonic stem cells to be able to apply it to the adult stem cells."

"If you're ... already engaged in the use of human stem cells through private resources, this [decision] is very good news, because this allows you to seek federal funding and fall under the review of federal procedures," says Daniel A. Peterson, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience at Finch University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School, Chicago. "But for those who are doing research in the field but are not presently working in this area, it doesn't allow them to initiate additional and new approaches to studying these cells, and while it lets them use federal funding to work on existing lines, there's the possible scientific restriction in that we have a limited diversity."


Peterson likens the situation to studying heart disease in a population of only 60 individuals, when in fact researchers need to study populations numbering in the thousands in order to see the range of disorders, genetic diversity, lifestyle and environmental factors, and differences in response to disease represented in the human race.

The researchers also note that the decision puts U.S. scientists at a distinct scientific and competitive disadvantage compared with their colleagues in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, where there is both public and governmental support for embryonic stem cell research.


"Under the best of circumstances, we're years from the bedside -- if we can get there at all -- and anything that represents an obstacle to advances in knowledge is going to slow us down and is simply going to prolong suffering and the inadequate quality of life that our friends, relatives -- and sometimes we -- are suffering from," says Black.

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