More MS news articles for May 2002

Stem cell research gets scientific boost

Fighting Congress bid for ban, state senator brings hearing to Salk Institute

May 11, 2002
By Bruce Lieberman

Embryonic stem cell research, threatened by a proposed ban in Congress, could lead to treatments for a host of devastating diseases and injuries, said scientists gathered yesterday at a state legislative hearing.

The hearing, held at The Salk Institute in La Jolla, was the second convened by state Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento. Ortiz has introduced legislation to promote embryonic stem cell research.

Ortiz said her bill, SB 1272, which passed the Senate on Monday and next goes to the Assembly, aims to set California policy in light of the pending Congressional vote on a ban on human cloning, expected later this month or early next.

The U.S. Senate bill would ban all cloning, shutting down United States research into embryonic stem cell research. Called the Brownback Bill, the measure is sponsored by U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas. It would criminalize all forms of cloning, and prohibit people from seeking therapies involving stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cells are sought after by scientists for their ability to develop into most tissues in the body, including the heart, brain, liver and other organs.

Such cells, often referred to as "primitive" cells, arise early in human development. In the lab, they are obtained by taking the DNA from a patient and inserting it into a human egg, which is then activated to divide.

After a few cell divisions, scientists extract the small number of stem cells and grow them in a culture. Theoretically, the cells could then be grown into any type of tissue the patient needs whether brain or heart or liver tissue.

Hans Keirstead, with UC Irvine's College of Medicine and a neurobiologist with the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, said stem cells injected into paralyzed mice have restored some movement.

"It looks very, very hopeful," Keirstead said. "Our preliminary results show that these things seem to be causing a functional repair of the animal."

Fred Gage, a neuroscientist with the Salk Institute, said research into regenerating damaged spinal cord tissue and other tissues damaged by injury and disease, as in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, depend on access to embryonic stem cells.

Researchers even hope to someday grow entire organs from stem cells, he said.

"That's a future we can't even get to without the (human stem) cells," Gage said. Opponents of cloning say the procedure could lead to the creation of a cloned human being, if the embryo is implanted in a woman and taken to term. Cloning for this purpose has been widely condemned, and supporters of the Brownback bill say all cloning must be banned to prevent the cloning of a human.

President Bush, who supports the Brownback bill, has said adult stem cells in matured organs can be used as substitutes for embryonic stem cells.

Yet scientists at the hearing said animal tests show that adult stem cells do not reproduce nearly as fast, nor have they demonstrated an ability to develop as readily, or as effectively, into other types of cells as do embryonic stem cells.

"It appears the embryonic stem cells have the greatest potential to become different types of cells," said Dr. Stuart Lipton, director of the Center for Degenerative Disease at The Burnham Institute in La Jolla.

"We would really be strapped, and I think unnecessarily so, if we couldn't work on the cells with the most potential."

It is unclear what form a federal ban on cloning might take, and whether such a ban could override state statutes governing interstate commerce and health and safety, said Ortiz.

"We don't know what the effects would be," Ortiz said. "We do know it would be litigated."

Scientists at yesterday's hearing, held at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, said embryonic stem cell research is a science in its infancy that holds great promise for treating Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other devastating diseases.

Many of the scientists said stem cell research has become widely politicized because most people, including politicians, do not have a clear understanding of what the research entails.

People mistakenly equate human therapeutic cloning, which is designed to produce stem cells to treat disease, with human reproductive cloning, in which a manipulated embryo is transplanted into a woman's uterus and taken to term.

© Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co