March 5, 2024

Embryo cures still on a distant horizon

Observers pessimistic

Pessimism about cures from human embryonic stem cells was one of the main messages from the 2008 "World Stem Cell Summit," in Madison, Wisconsin, last week. In the words of science writer Rick Weiss, "This was a gathering of hundreds of scientists, pharmaceutical company reps, patient advocates and policy folks united in their evidence-based faith that stem cells are going to revolutionize biology and medicine."

However, the revolution still seems stuck in the future. Commercialisation of discoveries is "excruciatingly slow," one biotech CEO told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "I’m not aware of a successful stem-cell company. If you thought gene therapy was difficult, then [stem cells] are astronomically difficult." Even Weiss, who has long been a supporter of embryo research, observed that the stunning progress made with reprogrammed cells suggests "the scientifically and politically tantalizing possibility that embryonic stem cells themselves — controversial in some circles because their derivation requires that five-day-old embryos be destroyed — may before long become irrelevant. And Monya Baker, a journalist with Nature, also discovered that most stem cell scientists were worried about whether patients would be able to afford the cures if and when they arrived.

Despite these very public qualms about the viability, profitability and affordability of embryo research, the latest news still has not reached the ears of many politicians. California’s governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently vetoed a bill which would have made it easier for grant money from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to flow to other kinds of stem cells — because voters clearly wanted cures from human embryonic stem cells. And a fierce battle is being fought in Michigan over a proposal in the November ballot to allow scientists to use spare embryos from fertility clinics.