Several large companies in the US are starting to do research with embryonic stem cells (ESCs), the Wall Street Journal has discovered. Amongst the companies which have already launched research programs or plan to do so are Becton, Dickinson & Co, Invitrogen Corp, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric Co, and the US-based operations of the Swiss drug company Novartis. Although some are interested in stem-cell therapies, most of them regard this as risky work which is unlikely to lead to products in the short term. Instead, they want to use ESCs to test drugs for toxic or positive effects.
CEOs worry that consumers and shareholders might object if they use ESCs because their source is human embryos which die in the process of extracting the stem cells. Consequently many companies told the WSJ that they were not involved in embryo research and several had policies forbidding it. In any case, no major US company is working directly with human embryos. Instead, companies like Becton Dickinson and Johnson & Johnson are purchasing ESC lines from other suppliers or investing in companies which supply them.
Companies acknowledge that ethical issues are involved. Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella decided that ESC research was ethical in 2001 after weighing potential medical benefits against the moral challenge of “using human beings — even ones not yet differentiated — to help others”. GE, which plans to use ESCs to develop drug-testing products, will release its first report on social responsibility next month.
Stem cell scientist George Daley, of Harvard University, is confident that big companies will embrace ESC research when the science has been mastered. “There is pent-up desire inside the companies,” he told the WSJ. Once the cells’ potential has been clearly demonstrated, corporate misgivings “will evaporate” and they will rush into the field.
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