I ate my wafer...


Embryonic Stem Cells

Krupa has a post that touches on Stem Cell Funding that's drawing some comment attention from bright Hillsdale bloggers like Will. In this case, I think Will's guilty of some pretty heavy hyperbole about Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC), namely he's arguing that they haven't produced anything of value, and that the lack of private sector development indicates that ESC has no scientific value. To quote the philosopher Jagger, perhaps Will is blinded by love?

A. Science Successes:

Since ESC extraction has only been around since 1998, the technology is admittedly in its infancy. In contrast, research on adult hematopoietic stem cells has had a 40+ year head start. However, there have been a number of successful uses of ESC, from helping repair heart attacks in animal trials to growing human prostate tissue in mice. The most recent example that I know of is a recent piece in The Annals of Neurology about the successful use of ESC methods to restore muscle function in paralyzed rats.

At least politically, I suspect that the most critical success for ESC technology to date is the newly developed ability to extract stem cells without harming an embryo. Although the initial experiments discarded the embryos, it would appear that if enough women are willing to back their political convictions by donating their uteri, new ESC cell lines can be developed without any taint of discarded embryos.

B. Federal Research Funding:

Besides Will, I've heard a couple people argue that the lack of obvious private sector research funding for ESC somehow indicates a low scientific value for ESC technology. First, just to clear any misinterpretations that people might have, any current successes in adult stem cells have been backed by federal funding reaching back to the early 1960's. From a practical point of view, basic science research has long been heavily supported by federal funding, and at the very minimum it will slow research in ESC to require all funding to be raised from private sources.


  • two more things:

    1) just because some science doesn't work now doesn't mean it will never work. the possibility that it might work is why you have to spend money to find out.

    2) out of all the useless crap the government spends tax dollars on, I don't think science grants should be the first target.

    the center of this debate anyway is that religious conservatives are bent out of shape about this because of its supposed moral implications. saying we shouldn't fund this because it's morally wrong is one thing, but then adding that "it won't work anyway and it's government waste" is just spin to try and get those fiscal conservatives on your side ;-)

    By Anonymous Krupa, at 2:48 PM  

  • First off. I'll concede that the "why isn't it being funded privately?" argument is a weak one right off the bat.
    You're also write that I was using more than a little hyperbole. Not every ESC experiment has been a collossal failure. It is, true, however, that even those exhibiting moderate success have still not been successful enough to go to clinical trials as yet. You can chalk this up to the 40 year head start if you wish, but I guess that's just a time-will-tell situation. To address Krupa's point, yes most of this is just spin. I'm cynical enough to be cool with that.

    Another facet to this is something that both Bob and I have touched on, and something that was addressed by one of the two stem cell research bills that the President did not veto: alternative stem cell research. There are a number of promising (and coincidentally also generally cost-effective) ways being researched and developed to either extract or develop ESCs without destruction of the embryo, from one just announced this week that involves extraction of one cell at the 8 cell stage which is immediately replaced by the embryo after its extraction but does not form an embryo of its own accord, to induction of umbillical cord and other "adult" (an unfortunate misnomer for these debates, as anything extracted after the embryonic stage of development is "adult") SCs to what appears to be the same degree of pluripotency as ESCs.
    What I find astonishing is that as soon as these new developments are made, there is an almost immediate cry to either downplay or discredit them. Whys is it that in order to be "real" ESCs, embryos have to be destroyed, according to some. I can't find it right now, but when I do, I'll post it, but I read a statement from a congressman when discussing the "alternative methods" bill, saying that anyone who supported the bill - which expands funding for stem cell research, even embryonic research if the embryos are not destroyed - an "enemy" of stem cell research. When, for many (thought certainly not all)proponents of ESC research, did the focus stop being ESC research and start being the necessity of destroying embryos to obtain them?

    By Blogger Will, at 6:05 PM  

  • I generally agree about those whose try to down play the alternative extraction techniques...there's a lot of that going on in Australia in the last day or so. (google news search: "stem cell australia")

    To be completely honest, I personally hope that allowing pretty much ESC research funding, but only allowing clinical trials/FDA approval on cells that do NOT come from destroyed embryos might be the best possible compromise. That is, I have the impression, mistaken or not, that it might be easier for some research purposes to use ESCs, then develope duplicate techniques with ASCs or cell lines from non-destroyed embros. The obvious objection to this compromise is the hypothetical problem of a promising ESC development that doesn't translate to an approved therapy with ASC or nondestructive methods. To my mind, that's better than the current situation where privately developed ESC therapy may rear its head at any moment, without a regulatory scheme to deal with it.

    By Blogger Bob, at 9:15 PM  

  • Wow, I agree with you, Bob. And I did not expect to. We should do that.


    By Anonymous jake allen, at 10:31 PM  

  • People keep saying that there's some kind of horrible Federal regulatory stranglehold on and repression of ESC (thank you for that acronym), meanwhile a huge private University here is already spending millions on research lines and setting up faculty and institutes of study. There's a lot of money and activity going on, funded privately and in conjunction with the State of California. We passed a referendum on it - Proposition 71 - that started a mad rush for money and prestige-jobs. To quote the Stanford Daily, "Since the November passage of Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, the brand new California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, has been gearing up to invest $3 billion in stem cell research via universities and research institutions." Google "california stem cell institute stanford" and you'll see Dr. Irv Weissman is very busy as director of the Stanford Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, - a brand new Institute was built in a big hurry just to get its hands on that funding and career-making prestige research that was opened up.
    Maybe one reason for the controversy is that the Institute heads and the Med School Deans feel there should be no research-restrictions of any sort, because these are the same people who are badmouthing the administration and claiming (at least in a Hospitla publication) that Right wing evangelicals are behind the President's decision. Typical Blue-state hysteria as I've known it for years...

    By Blogger DirtCrashr, at 12:57 PM  

  • *correction to my last comment, I should have said "allow pretty much any ESC research funding" and "human clinical trials". Hopefully this doesn't negate the Bob-Jake alliance on the topic?

    There certainly is private and state funding filling some of the gap. I would still like to see NIH funding, mostly because the NIH system has worked decently with other developing technologies.

    Overall, I'm completely comfortable with running ESC experiments, mostly for the same reason that I'm comfortable with organ donation...its a use of an otherwise wasted resource. I'm not comfortable with the idea of developing a treatment that requires endless numbers of embryos to be created merely for the sake of destroying them. So, I suppose that I'm even OK with a treatment based on a cell line that came from destroyed embryos, just as long as it doesn't require unlimited additional embryos.

    By Blogger Bob, at 12:15 PM  

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