Tuesday, June 13, 2006

'A Sad Way of Doing Big Science'

'A Sad Way of Doing Big Science'
Two of the nation's top universities recently announced plans to pursue embryonic stem-cell research. An expert explains why the news is so significant—and so controversial.
By Jennifer Barrett

June 12, 2006 - Last week, Harvard scientists announced that they have begun a privately funded program aimed at creating the world’s first cloned human embryonic stem cells. Their goal, they said, is to use the cells to study the development of several devastating diseases like diabetes and genetic blood disorders and, hopefully, to find treatments for them. Scientists say that embryonic stem cells hold the most promise for developing innovative new treatments for diseases, since the cells may be changed into any of the human body’s cells. But the process is not without controversy. To get the cells, scientists destroy days-old embryos, which religious and conservative critics equate with taking human lives. In 2001, President George W. Bush cut off federal funding for new embryonic stem-cell development and research. So Harvard and the University of California at San Francisco, which relaunched its embryonic stem-cell program earlier this year, must depend on private funding. That’s not the only challenge that U.S. embryonic stem-cell researchers face. Late last year, a South Korean scientist admitted that he had falsified research, after he and his team published a paper in the journal Science claiming to have produced 11 stem cell lines from cloned human embryos—an achievement hailed as a major breakthrough in scientific research (that turned out to be a lie). The admission raised concerns about unethical behavior in the field and calls for additional regulation and restrictions, and made it even more unlikely that federal funds would be restored anytime soon. NEWSWEEK’s Jennifer Barrett discussed the controversy and promise of embryonic stem-cell research with Christopher Thomas Scott, executive director of the Stanford University Program on Stem Cells and Society and author of ''Stem Cell Now: From the experiment that shook the world to the new politics of life," published by Pi Press last November. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Harvard University and the University of California at San Francisco both announced recently that they will pursue embryonic stem cells research through privately-funded programs. How significant are these announcements?
Christopher Thomas Scott: They’re significant because they are the first indication that embryonic stem-cell research is alive and well in the United States despite those who predicted its death after the South Korean scandal. Second, these are two blue chip organizations. These scientists are very good. You couldn’t have picked a better trio. And at UCSF, they’re building a world-leading stem-cell section. It’s all good news.

The Bush administration cut off federal funds for embryonic stem cell research in 2001. How much do you think that set back efforts to find new treatments for some of these diseases?
I think it has created some fairly pronounced effects, but proving it is another matter. It’s only been five years. My group at Stanford is looking really closely at this. We’ve been collaborating with Jennifer McCormick [a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics]. She compared the rate of announcements of new results in he United States against the rate of groundbreaking stem cell papers in other countries and found that, right after the 2001 Bush announcements—and, in particular, in 2004 through 2006—the rate of U.S. new results has started to taper off while the rate in other countries has started to increase. That confirms what a lot of us are kind of suspicious about. I go to a lot of international meetings for stem cell research. In 2002, U.S. scientists were prominent. Now, not so much. It’s folks from Israel, the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and China—places where stem cell research is permitted, even encouraged. This is just the first blush of effects of the policy. It will have a bad effect on the inventiveness of U.S. researchers. And new ways of doing research create new ways of doing products that become drugs and therapies for our citizens. If the process is thwarted or retarded, we don’t have the benefit of developing therapies at home. They go somewhere else.

What are the prospects for embryonic stem cell research in the United States now that some institutions are raising private funds?
This will go ahead for sure, despite the federal funds ban. The challenge for biologists is to go ahead, despite the current political environment. The good news is that this has always been a worldwide phenomenon. The world is doing a really good job of collaborating and having meetings and trying to figure it out. The bad news—from an American point of view—is that we may be playing a secondary role with this…I don’t think we’ll see government funding for this of any real sort, which means America in may need to take it state by state. It’s a sad way of doing big science but it may be the only way to get it done.

What exactly will the research at Harvard and UCSF entail?
This is embryonic stem-cell research versus adult. Stanford has both varieties, but we’re not doing nuclear transfer like they are. We’re using embryos donated by parents.

What makes nuclear transfer unique?
Nuclear transfer is a technique that produces lines of cells. One cool thing about it is that these cells can just go on and on and on, so you can keep doing tests. It’s a really nifty system for a laboratory… What Harvard and UCSF and some labs in England are doing is trying to duplicate the South Korean result—or the results the South Koreans lied about, to be more specific. It involves something called `therapeutic cloning,’ but it’s actually nuclear transfer [in which nuclei, which contain the cellular DNA or genes from egg cells, are removed from embryos and replaced with the nuclei of donor cells]. When it’s fully developed, it becomes a clone. That’s how Dolly the sheep was born.

But we’re not talking about cloning babies here, right?
Even saying you’re cloning embryos is a stretch. This is a technique that produces lines of cells. You’re making cells, not animals or babies. You’re harvesting the cells and making a stem cell line… When we’re talking about stem cell research, we’re talking about an embryo at 4 days—about 120 to 150 cells. In other countries, the embryo can be up to 12 to 14 days. But it’s certainly not a baby, or even a fetus.

So what is created?
You can actually create diseases in the lab. If you take the nucleus from a person with diabetes and put it into the egg, you’d have embryonic stem cells with diabetes. That’s what Harvard scientists are aiming for.

Why is embryonic stem cell research such a polarizing subject?
A colleague of mine says that it’s all tied to the embryo—to in vitro fertilization, abortion, and other issues. They’re all kind of wrapped in that moral tangle that conservatives use to drive the social conservative movement in the U.S. If you tease it out—the stem cell research—you can see how weak and thin it [the argument] really is. We’re trying to get people on the same page from a biological perspective, and even a moral perspective. We aren’t talking about an embryo with arms and legs.

Why not just use adult stem cells?
Embryonic stem cells are the most powerful cells we have. They can theoretically change into any cell in the body. That’s why they’ve got everybody so excited. You can have a powerful therapy to treat almost every disease. Adult stem cells have already been programmed to be a certain cell type. Blood stem cells, for example, become nine different kinds like white, red, platelets, etcetera. So they are good for some things, but not all things. Embryonic stem cells, in theory, are good for all things…With embryonic stem cells, you can observe how the cells become diseased as they develop. You can compare the processes of diseased cells to healthy lines, see what’s being turned on and off, how the disease progresses from molecular level. Also, you have model system on which to test drugs. You have a laboratory system for certain diseases—you can actually, in the cultured disease, test chemical agents and other drugs to see if you can interrupt the pathways in the disease.

This isn’t really what’s talked about in the press. The stem cell issue gets everybody so worked up, but these are the near-term horizon goals. It’s just stunning what they could do for medicine.

The Harvard scientists said they hope to develop, via nuclear transfer, embryonic stem cells from patients with blood diseases and diabetes. Why focus on these diseases?
Let’s take diabetes. It is a complicated disease. It’s an autoimmune disease—the white blood cells are attacking healthy organs like the pancreas—so it’s complicated and ugly. You have to figure out a way to repair the autoimmune problem and the pancreas. The theoretical treatment would use a combination of bone marrow transplant therapy and cell therapy for the pancreas.

What would it entail?
You give the patient a dose of chemotherapy and radiation or both, which destroys the cells that are attacking the pancreas, and then you transplant into the patient a healthy immune system—or the blood stem cells from a healthy patient. They are not rejected. Both the patient’s existing blood system and the new one exist in a kind of harmony. So you’ve also got an immune system of somebody else who could be a lifelong donor. Then you use the same source of embryonic stem cells to make new pancreatic cells. Get those to regenerate the pancreas that has been damaged from bad white blood cells. It’s dual therapy—embryonic stem cells can make white blood cells and pancreatic cells. This is a ‘Gee, whiz-oh wow!’ therapy. But it’s very possible that in a decade or so you could do something like this for many diseases in the autoimmune categories, like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis as well as diabetes.

Aren’t stem cells already being used to treat some diseases?
Yes, adult stem cells are being used in joint repair on the East Coast. Umbilical cord blood cells are being used to actually cure certain childhood cancers successfully. But the problem with umbilical cord blood cells is that very small numbers are good for children, and not so much for adults. We need to find a way to make these cells do well in adults too or find a way to amplify these cells so you can use them in millions of patients.

How do these stem cells work to fight or treat diseases?
Stem cells in bone marrow transplants, for example, are the reason those transplants work. We know that now. It’s helping to improve our success, now that we have more information.

When could we see embryonic stem cells being used in treatment?
Embryonic stem cell therapies are still in the gate. And the first trials are expected to start in the next year or so. There’s a corporation in California, Geron, that’s using a line of embryonic stem cells to help patients with spinal cord injuries, for example. They claim to be able to take the line of stem cells into a special chemical cocktail and then change them to a type of adult stem cell that can be used for therapies.

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13283561/site/newsweek/