More MS news articles for February 2001

Medical advances at risk: Growing backlash threatening stem cell research

Financial Post - Canada; Feb 3, 2001

Biotech may be exciting, and hugely lucrative in future, but breakthrough medical advances, and profits, may be halted by a growing backlash against certain types of scientific research.

"I'm definitely worried about a backlash," said Ian Wilmut, leader of the team in Scotland that pulled off the first-ever cloning of a sheep named Dolly.

Cloning of human beings is illegal in Europe, the United States and Canada but concerns are that Frankenstein creations may be attempted elsewhere.

Controversy also dogs stem cell research using human embryos donated by individuals. This issue pits the anti-abortionists against many members of the scientific community who feel this experimentation is absolutely vital. There's also the use of fetal tissue for research or transplantation into Parkinson's and other patients.

But the most controversial issue by far involves a certain type of stem cell research.

There are two basic types of stem cells: organ or tissue-specific and embryonic or master stem cells. The master stem cells can only be harvested from human embryos (or cloned) and are present only immediately after conception before they divide into billions of specialized cells. The other stem cells are present in all tissues and organs but are difficult to harvest.

(The exception is stem cells in bone marrow. For years, doctors have been transplanting matching bone marrow into cancer patients to allow the stem cells to replace white blood cells damaged by cancer drugs.)

Dr. Wilmut, and the vast majority of other scientists, exclusively experiment with animal embryos. But the company that owns his patents, Geron Corp., is involved in the only known research using human embryos, at the University of Wisconsin and Stem Cell Sciences Co. in Australia.

Enter politics.

Last month, the British House of Lords overwhelmingly approved the use of human embryos up to 14 days old for medical research.

"The 14-day boundary for research on human embryos was established because there is, at that stage, no suggestion of a nervous system, and the embryo is not aware or conscious," said Dr. Wilmut. "I was surprised they approved it."

George W. Bush, the U.S. President, then waded in, saying he supports stem cell research using cells that come from adults (non-embryonic) and fetal tissue research using tissue derived from miscarriages. But he said he opposes research using embryonic stem cells or tissue from aborted fetuses. He did not talk about banning such experiments, however.

In Canada, it is illegal to clone a human being, but it is not illegal to use fetal tissue or human embryos in research. Federal funding agencies allow experiments on embryos up to 17 days old, but each project must be approved by ethics committees.

Current research is so impressive that political pressure builds to loosen restrictions.

"For instance, you can transplant healthy stem cells to others to regenerate their immune system so that it blocks the genetic proclivity to get diabetes and MS (multiple sclerosis)," said Dr. Irving Weissman of Stanford University, whose research team works with a division of pharmaceutical giant Novardis. "This has huge clinical potential. We can put stem cells in someone else and they will then have the donor's immune system."

"You can transplant stem cells without rejection. There are stem cells in every tissue. Earlier in the differentiation (maturity) of the mammal, the better the stem cell. Brain stem cells are better if transplanted from fetal brains than from adult brains," he added.

His colleague Fred Gage, with the Salk Insitute for Biological Studies, pointed out that researchers hope to eventually be able to take specialized stem cells from our bodies, grow them in labs and teach them to become a particular type of cell for transplantation. Another possibility is that scientists will learn, through experimentation, how to activate existing stem cells in our bodies so that they begin replacing or repairing missing areas.

Another possibility is that embryonic stem cells, a source of genetic material, can be cloned from our own cells, repaired and transplanted to correct our own genetically transmitted diseases.

The whole area of stem cell research promises to reap huge benefits for mankind in a few decades. It also promises to unlock the secret of life, and death.

So far, great successes have resulted from transplanting organ or tissue-specific stem cells. But scientists believe that research into master stem cells from embryos holds the greatest hope for medicine. However, it also presents one of mankind's greatest moral questions.

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