May 22, 2024

Shifting the goal posts for embryonic stem cell research

stem cellsAlthough it is more difficult to assess who is winning the PR war over embryonic stem cells than who is top dog in the presidential race, one certainty is emerging. Scientists are now acknowledging that there has been too much hype about “miracle cures”. The near horizon for clinical trials is now being set at five years. Some leading scientists have stopped mentioning cures and instead stress how important ESCs will be for research.

For example, Irving Weissman, of Stanford University, one of America’s leading stem cell scientists, says that rather than being a therapy in its own right, producing ESCs through therapeutic cloning will be a tool for studying diseases. “For me, the greatest and most important thing that’ll come from this is a whole new platform to understand human genetic diseases,” Weissman told the UK newspaper The Guardian.

Another prominent figure, John D. Gearhart, of Johns Hopkins University, wrote in the Washington Post, together with bioethicist Ruth R. Faden, that “considerable research needs to be done before the therapeutic promise of stem cells is fully understood and its benefits are realised. In no cases are cures guaranteed, and even in the most promising areas, reliable cures are years, in some cases as much as five to 10 years, away.”

At the same time, the Cinderella of regenerative medicine, adult stem cell research, is getting more publicity. According to the Washington Post, “executives and academics who work with adult stem cells note that last year the National Institutes of Health spent US$190 million on adult stem cell research and that there are hundreds of clinical trials in progress that are using such cells. In comparison, the NIH spent $24.8 million on embryonic stem cell research last year, though that may be in part a gauge of the political challenges to doing such research. There are no clinical trials using embryonic stem cells, according to the NIH.”

A number of private companies are working on treatments for heart attacks, liver disease, bone and cartilage diseases and brain disorders. “It is mind-blowing stuff,” says Saul J. Sharkis, also of Johns Hopkins. “I never would have thought this would be possible. Preposterous. Not possible. No way.”