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Stem cell answers in 20 years

German scientists: efficient procedures for enriching embryo lines at least 10 years off

May 19, 2004
Ned Stafford
The Scientist

Three of four German scientists think that researchers will have unlocked most of the secrets of how embryonic and adult stem cells function in the next 10 to 20 years, allowing them to concentrate on developing medical and therapeutic applications, a survey released this week showed.

Half of those surveyed for the Delphi Study also warned that Germany would lose at least half of its stem cell scientists to other countries in the next 5 years because of “restrictive research conditions.” The other half disagreed.

The Delphi Study, conducted by the Max Delbrueck Center for Molecular Medicine and Research Center Juelich, is part of a 3-year project into ethical questions in biomedicine, financed with a grant of around €1 million from the German Ministry of Education and Research. Another part of the project was a so-called citizens' conference to learn how “normal people” feel about the highly controversial stem cell issue.

Peter M. Wiedemann, leader of the Delphi Study and head of the Humans, Environment, Technology Program Group at the Research Center Juelich, told The Scientist that a better understanding of the viewpoints of experts will help in crafting future stem cell laws.

“Some people wonder: 'What in the hell are they [researchers] doing? What can we expect from stem cell research in the long run?'” Wiedemann said.

In constructing the study, Wiedemann said about 110 stem cell experts were identified out of what he described as an exclusive pool of 120 to 150 Germans intimately involved in stem cell research or ethics.

Some 64 experts—guaranteed anonymity—agreed to participate in the survey, and 49 returned the questionnaires.

Preliminary results were compiled, summarized, and sent to the 49 respondents in order to let them know how their colleagues answered, Wiedemann said. They were asked to fill out the questionnaire a second time, giving them a chance to revise their answers. Some 36 of the original 49 respondents answered the second questionnaire.

About 90% of the participants felt that within the next 10 years, efficient procedures for the production and enrichment of various adult stem cells would be established, while only 70% felt such advances would be seen with embryonic stem cells.

A quarter of the participants felt such advance with embryonic stem cells in the next 10 years was “illusory,” according to the 17-page study, which Wiedemann said would be translated into English within a few weeks and posted on the biomedicine ethics discourse Web site.

The survey contained a list of potential stem cell–based medical applications, and asked participants when they felt these might be successfully done. Within the next 6 to 10 years, a majority of participants believe stem cell-based applications will be used for treatment of diabetes mellitus, heart disease, and Parkinson disease.

In the next 11 to 15 years, they see treatments for multiple sclerosis and the damaged nerves of paraplegics. Slightly more half expect stem cell treatments for Alzheimer disease in the next 11 to 20 years, while 36% say more than 20 years and 10% say such treatments will never come.

A larger share of participants either favored or were more optimistic about potential adult stem cell research developments (75–92% on various issues) than on embryonic stem cell research (47–61%).

Hans R. Schoeler, head of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine, said it is too early to favor adult over embryonic stem cells.

Stressing that he had only read a summary of the full report, Schoeler said: “Concentrating on adult stem cell research would, basically, be like shutting one eye, being blind in one eye.”

Schoeler applauded the Delphi Study, saying it would spark public discussion on stem cell research and could help raise funds for research.

However, Schoeler said that he personally refuses to predict timelines for stem cell research and applications.

“I have been asked this again and again,” Schoeler said. “I say there is potential and we just have to keep on working on it, but let's not raise hopes by giving dates.”

Copyright © 2004, The Scientist Inc.