April 22, 2024

“Substantial profits” likely from embryonic stem cells

The future of human embryonic stem cell research will be driven as much by markets as by ethics and science, predicts a Harvard Business School professor. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Debora Spar foresees that "mainstream firms will provide increasingly normalised products, reaping substantial profits in the process and carefully avoiding the areas that society finds repugnant. Pharmaceutical companies will focus on treatments for major illnesses, for example, rather than on producing hybrid offspring for a tiny segment of possible buyers. Venture capitalists will fund research into the most acceptable offshoots of stem-cell science, driving a market that runs in accordance with the wishes of society and not against them. Firms, in other words, will cluster not at the scary edges of scientific potential but, rather, where rules are transparent, and where states are essentially accepting."

Professor Spar argues that private embryonic stem cell research in the US — worth only US$70 million in 2003 — will expand dramatically as the science matures. Eventually the government will be powerless to prohibit the market because it will go abroad or underground. Hence, she says, the commercial consequences of President Bush’s restrictive policy are "staggering". "If we ignore these commercial prospects now, we risk undermining both the business and the science".

A leading American bioethicist also discerns a growing interest in the financial side of stem cell research. "States are beginning to recognise there is a tremendous economic opportunity in terms of an edge in the biotech sector," says Alta Charo, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "So I think people who are middling on abortion issues are being moved to support stem cell research on cells from embryos that are going to be discarded anyway. They don’t want to be left behind."