Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lots of stem cell coverage on July 30

Probably in anticipation of the five year anniversary of the Bush funding restrictions, many news groups have articles on stem cells.

Time's (electronic) cover story for July 30 is "Stem Cells: the hope and the hype," with a teaser: "The debate is so politically loaded that it's tough to tell who's being straight about the real areas of progress and how breakthroughs can be achieved. TIME sorts it out."

Time's article is interesting for what it does, and does NOT, cover. TIME mentions the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research of President Bush in August 2001 and TIME discusses present implications of this restriction. TIME does not mention at all the patent issues, as for example with the WARF / Thomson patents (e.g., 5,843,780 and 6,200,806), which some people think are more significant barriers to stem cell research. The TIME article does not mention Hwang Woo-Suk by name, but obliquely refers to the fraud in a discussion of therapeutic cloning. TIME does not mention the tremendous gap between what scientists were willing to believe about Hwang's work and the reality of "how far back" the state of the art is in SCNT. TIME does not succeed in presenting all the issues, much less in sorting them out.

The TIME article presents the hope vs. hype theme:

It is the nature of science to mix hope with hedging. It is the nature of politics to overpromise and mop up later. But the politics of stem-cell science is different. Opponents of ESC research—starting with Bush—argue that you can't destroy life in order to save it; supporters argue that an eight-cell embryo doesn't count as a human life in the first place—not when compared with the life it could help save. Opponents say the promise of embryo research has been oversold, and they point to the cures that have been derived from adult stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cords; supporters retort that adult stem cells are still of limited use, and to fully realize their potential we would need to know more about how they operate—which we can learn only from studying leftover fertility-clinic embryos that would otherwise be thrown away.

The "exodus of US scientists" issue is present:

States from Connecticut to California have tried to step in with enough funding to keep the labs going and slow the exodus of U.S. talent to countries like Singapore, Britain and Taiwan. Meanwhile, private biotech firms and research universities with other sources of funding are free to create and destroy as many embryos as they like, because they operate outside the regulations that follow public funds.

Not mentioning the Hwang scandal, TIME neglects to point out that part of the fraud originated in the desire of a junior Korean researcher to work in the United States.

Of the approved embyronic stem cell lines:

For scientists who choose to work with the approved "presidential" lines, the funding comes wrapped in frustration. Today there are only 21 viable lines, which limits genetic diversity. They are old, so they don't grow very well, and were cultured using methods that are outdated. What's more, the chromosomes undergo subtle changes over time, compromising the cells' ability to remain "normal." The presidential lines, scientists say, are wasting money as well as time. Larry Goldstein's lab at the University of California at San Diego is a life-size game of connect the dots. Each machine, cell dish, chemical and pretty much every major tool bears a colored dot, signaling to lab workers whether they can use the item for experiments that the government won't pay for.

"Not all embryonic-stem-cell lines are created equal," says Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, who runs the Institute for Regeneration Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "Some are more readily driven down a certain lineage, such as heart cells, while others more easily become nerve. We don't understand how it happens, but it does mean we need diversity."

Therapeutic cloning and SCNT are discussed:

The only people who claim to have succeeded in creating human-stem-cell lines through nuclear transfer were the South Korean researchers who turned out to be frauds [i.e., Hwang Woo-Suk] It will take much trial and error to master the process, but where do you get the human eggs needed for each attempt, particularly since researchers find it ethically inappropriate to reimburse donors for anything but expenses? And even if the technique for cloning embryos could be perfected, would Congress allow it to go on?

The TIME article discusses alternatives:

To get around political roadblocks, scientists are searching for another source of cells that is less ethically troublesome, ideally one that involves no embryo destruction at all. One approach is "altered nuclear transfer," in which a gene, known as cdx2, would be removed before the cell is fused with the egg. That would ensure that the embryo lives only long enough to produce stem cells and then dies. That strategy, promoted by Dr. William Hurlbut, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, has its critics. Dr. Robert Lanza of biotech firm Advanced Cell Technology considers it unethical to deliberately create a crippled human embryo "not for a scientific or medical reason, but purely to address a religious issue." The most exciting new possibility doesn't go near embryos at all. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University reported tantalizing success in taking an adult skin cell, exposing it to four growth factors in a petri dish and transforming it into an embryo-like entity that could produce stem cells—potentially sidestepping the entire debate over means and ends.

Lanza's group is also close to filing for fda permission to begin clinical trials on three cell-based therapies: one for macular degeneration, one for repairing heart muscle and another for regenerating damaged skin. Not to to be outdone, the academic groups are just a few steps behind. Lorenz Studer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City has been able to differentiate ESCs into just about every cell type affected by Parkinson's disease and has transplanted them into rats and improved their mobility. Next, he plans to inject the cells into monkeys.

The TIME article discusses cord blood cells:

While not as flexible as embryonic cells, cord and placental cells have proved more valuable than scientists initially hoped. Although about 90% of cord-blood stem cells are precursors for blood and immune cells, the remaining 10% give rise to liver, heart-muscle and brain cells and more. Over the past five years, cord-blood transplants have become an increasingly popular alternative to bone-marrow transplants for blood disorders, particularly when a bone-marrow match can't be found.

Of a "Manhattan-like" project:

Owen Witte of UCLA: "I hate to say it, but biology is more complicated than splitting the atom. The physicists on the Manhattan Project knew what they needed to accomplish and how to measure it. In biology, we're codeveloping our measurement tools and our outcome tools at the same time."

View the TIME article here.

The Fond du Lac Reporter noted:

Scientists fret that the United States will now fall even farther behind the pace of the rest of the world when it comes to stem cell research. According to Medpage Today, in 2002, about a third of the 10 published articles involving human embryonic stem cells were from U.S. research groups. Two years later, U.S. groups accounted for only one-quarter of the 77 publications.

"Anytime we are limiting research, we are putting our country at risk when we know our competitors are doing the same kind of research," said Fond du Lac's John Whitsett, president of the National Science Teachers Association.

Of Wisconsin's involvement in stem cell research:

The discovery was pioneered and continues to be nurtured at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

One assumes that Jeanne Loring, PubPat, and FTCR would dispute the comment about nurturing.

The LaCrosse Tribune had a comment: Stem cells: the temptation in the laboratory.

Bloomberg reports on Tony Blair visiting the US concerning stem cell research:

British Prime Minister Tony Blair will meet executives from Californian biotechnology companies including Genentech Inc., StemCells Inc. and Gilead Sciences Inc., seeking to bolster stem-cell research back home. The Prime Minister is on a four-day trip to California aimed at increasing cooperation ``between the increasingly high-tech'' economies of the U.S. state and Britain. The government has doubled the amount it is spending on stem-cell research to 100 million pounds ($186 million) over the next two years.

LA Times on July 30:

Q: What's the California situation on stem cells?

A: In November 2004, 59% of California voters approved Proposition 71, paving the way for the state to provide $3 billion over 10 years to stem cell research. Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey have also approved state funds to fill in the gap left by the lack of federal funding.

Several groups have challenged the constitutionality of Proposition 71 and are appealing an April state Superior Court decision that upheld the proposition.

The legal wrangling has prevented the use of any Proposition 71 money for research. To get the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine off the ground, the state is selling bonds to philanthropists, and the governor lent $150 million from the general fund.

Q: Why is the restriction on federal funding a big deal?

A: Universities depend on federal funding for about 60% of their research budgets. Without this money, scientists must rely on private and state funds to advance their stem cell research.

Many scientists think the number of embryonic stem cell lines eligible for federal funding is too small. When the president announced his stem cell policy in 2001, 78 lines were thought to be available. The number is about 20 now because the rest are unavailable or not research-quality.

Additionally, the remaining cell lines were grown in the presence of mouse cells to help nourish them and get them to stick to the petri dish. This makes them unsuitable for transplanting into humans. Scientists want to make new stem cell lines now that they know how to grow them without mouse cells.

See LATimes, Funding Restrictions at Heart of Legal Wrangling


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