Scientists Meet in Canada to Discuss Stem Cells

Scientists gathered this week in Toronto, at the meeting of International Society for Stem Cell Research . The list of speakers is a who's who of researchers in the field of both adult and embryonic stem cell research. NPR's Joe Palca reports from the conference.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

A bit later in the program, we'll talk about the Supreme Court's first case dealing directly with global warming. But first, scientists are gathered this week in Toronto at the meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

The list of speakers there is literally a who's-who of experts in the field of both adult and embryonic stem cell research, and our man on the scene is NPR Science Correspondent Joe Palca. Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Hi, Ira. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi. How are things going? You know, I had to stop myself from saying, hi Joe, what do you know? So, just forgive me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So what do you know about the meeting there? Give us some highlights -some of the high points of stuff you've been picking up.

PALCA: Well, I have to say that the meeting kind of ground to a halt for the last couple of hours while some of the principals went and watched Argentina and Germany play in a World Cup match.

FLATOW: Well, there are priorities (unintelligible).

PALCA: There are priorities. Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: This is an interesting meeting because it reflects the fact that the field has matured a little bit and they're not the - you know, in the first years, everything was new and everything was fantastic, and now they're into a more mature stage where the - you know, the big discoveries are coming a little more slowly.

But I think the most interesting paper here was a talk that was given this morning by a doctor named Yamanaka from Kyoto University. It was very well received. And basically, what he showed - and this was worked on in mice - but what he showed was it was possible to take a skin cell and add some genes to it and get it to behave as if it were an embryonic stem cell.

Now, the reason that's important is that, right now, the only way to make an embryonic stem cell is to get an embryo and then extract cells from that embryo. And, of course, with mice it's probably not the same ethical issue, but when we talk about human embryonic stem cells, some people have raised objections - moral objections to using human embryos.

So, if - and, you know, this is what we always say in these things - if the work in mice holds up, and if it can be translated to humans, it would be a fantastic advance because it would get around the whole issue of using human eggs to make embryos and then, you know, getting stem cells from them.

FLATOW: Right. Let me ask you about that and I hadn't even thought about this, but now that you say that this is such a very big - I don't want to use the word breakthrough yet - but are scientists who have been - who were burned by the South Korean fiasco - do they look at this and say, well, let's not go down that road again; let's make sure we have, you know, it well-researched and thought out and refereed and all that kind of stuff.

PALCA: Oh, absolutely. You know, the Korean thing is, I think, I hope, such an unusual occurrence that it's very hard for scientists to approach any kind of research as if it was completely made up. They assume, to begin with, that it's true.

At the same time, even after the Koreans made their announcement that they had derived stem cell - you know, cloned human embryos and then derived stem cells from those embryos - even after that, a lot of scientists said, well, you know, the only people in the world who have been able to do it is the Koreans - the South Koreans - and it would be nice - it would be appropriate for other people to replicate the work before we go forward.

And even today, during halftime…

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: …when I was talking to these scientists at the bar who are actually some of the leading - the world's experts on reprogramming nuclei - that's what this process is known as…

FLATOW: Well, you have to go where they are at the bar…

PALCA: Right. That's right. It was important. But they were saying, you know, it almost seems too good to be true and that's always a warning, but they were also very impressed. So I think this is a kind of a study that's a lot easier to try to replicate, and I think that people will be trying to do that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Are you getting any impression that we have turned a corner a bit where there might be viable stem cell therapies that they're talking about at the meeting, or are we still into this basic research mode of the papers being presented?

PALCA: Well, you know, I think it's a funny place. There is - I was talking with a company called Geron, which has been in the embryonic stem cell business for quite some time, and they are looking to start some clinical trials in patients who have recently had spinal cord injuries, because they think they have a kind of a cell that might preserve the remaining neurons. Obviously, there's damage that they can't replace and repair, but they think there may be a way to restore function to some of the remaining neurons. And they're working toward getting that into the clinic.

I should hasten to say that, you know, we tend to say, well, there are no stem cell therapies. Well, obviously, there are a lot of stem cell therapies, because when you get a bone marrow transfer, what you're really getting is stem cells; they're blood stem cells. So there are already stem cell therapies. This would be embryonic therapies based on embryonic stem cells that were cells that were derived from them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So Geron is going to be doing trials of this or (unintelligible)?

PALCA: Well, you know, they tell me, you know, around the corner - any time they make a prediction of how soon the safety data is satisfactory to the FDA -it could be six months; it could be years. They are getting their network in place to do these clinical trials, so they're confident, but, you know, there's always hurdles that they say are unforeseen at this point.

FLATOW: I know you've been in Toronto for a few days. You may not be familiar with what's going on in Washington - a bit about the stem cell legislation that seems to be moving - embryonic stem cell legislation.

PALCA: Yeah, well…

FLATOW: Seems to be moving through Congress now.

PALCA: Yeah, well, you know, this is a funny world. You remember the whole issue here is, in August of 2001, the president said I think that we should only do research on embryonic stem cells that have been derived from embryos where, as he put it, the life and death decision has already been made.

So he said that only stem cells that were created - embryonic stem cells that were created before August 9, I think the date was…

FLATOW: Right.

PALCA: …would be eligible for federal funds. And people have - scientists have said, well, that's a very big restriction, and there's no law that says you can't use embryonic stem cells that you make yourself or use private funds.

So there's this funny imbalance where you can do the work, it's not illegal, but you can't get federal money for it. And a lot of members of Congress are now seeming to think that maybe it's not such a bad thing if more - and these are the embryos that would be, as the proponents say, they would be discarded anyway, because they are in fertility clinics; they aren't going to be used by people who made them.

FLATOW: Speaking of which, when you're there in the bar talking to the scientists and they…

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Ira, we don't want to go too far down this road, please. I had a Diet Coke, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Okay. We know you're 100 percent, Joe. Are people - are they mostly gathered to talk, strictly research, or do the politics, these political issues and funding questions come up also?

PALCA: Oh, definitely. I mean, in fact, just today this body, the International Society for Stem Cell Research, was putting forward a set of guidelines about how it feels the ethical research should go forward and whether, you know, whether it has things that it recommends to its scientists that either agree or don't agree with what the federal government is urging.

So, you know, these are draft guidelines and they're going to be worked on. But, yes, I mean, this is a political field. It's not political in some countries, but in others - and it's not just restricted to the United States -a lot of countries which have strong Roman Catholic base also find this work objectionable, and yet they're people here from Spain; they're people here from Italy. So it's all over. It's an interesting global problem.

FLATOW: It is. It is. And we'll let you get back to the meeting, now that halftime is over. So thanks, Joe.

PALCA: No games for a couple hours.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, they'll get some work done today. Thanks for talking with us, Joe. Good luck.

PALCA: You bet.

FLATOW: NPR Science Correspondent Joe Palca reporting from Toronto at a major meeting of the International Society of Stem Cell Research.

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