April 24, 2024


The website of the shows what most voters, and not just in Missouri, expect from embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. The Coalition is battling for a referendum which will legalise therapeutic cloning. Gathered in the website’s "Stories of Hope" are two dozen heart-rending accounts of children who are dying young of chronic diseases and adults whose lives have been consumed by disease and spinal cord injuries. They all conclude with a desperate plea to voters for support.

Unfortunately, according to the New York Times, embryonic stem cell therapies will be long a-coming. "Many [scientists] no longer see [embryonic] cell therapy as the first goal of the research, parting company with those whose near-term expectations for cell therapy remain high. Instead, these researchers envisage a longer-term program in which human embryonic cells would be a research tool to study the mechanisms of disease. From this, they say, many therapeutic benefits may emerge, like new drugs, which would probably be available at least as soon as any cell therapy treatment."

Work on embryonic stem cells since 2001 "has produced no significant advances", says the Times, although it has allowed scientists to gauge just how daunting the task of working with ESCs will be. The horizon for cell therapies is now at least "5 or 10 years off". Many of us feel that for the next few years the most rational way forward is not to try to push cell therapies," says Thomas M. Jessell, of Columbia University Medical Center, in New York.

And John D. Gearhart, of Johns Hopkins University, one of the best-known experts in the field, told the Times, "I personally feel that the beauty of these cells is that we’ll learn a lot about human biology and disease processes, and that that information will be more important than the cells themselves."

Although researchers complain that restrictions imposed by President Bush have hampered their work, the real issue is that it has proved unexpectedly difficult to differentiate the embryonic cells into specific types of tissue, such as heart cells, or liver cells or brain cells. Furthermore, scientists are not sure whether cells grown in a Petri dish will have all the information they need to flourish when introduced into a patient’s body. "We initially hoped we could leapfrog over certain developmental steps," says Dr Evan Snyder, of the Burnham Institute in San Diego. "We are starting to learn that doesn’t always work."