Stem-Cell Research Moves Forward Without U.S. Funds

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The world of stem-cell research hasn't stood still since President Bush placed restrictions on the field five years ago. Private and international research efforts have pushed the science forward.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Even with the restrictions on federal funding, scientists have made significant progress in their understanding of embryonic stem-cells and what those stem cells can do. NPR's Joe Palca examines where the field of stem-cell research stands.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Although the field has received a ton of attention, human embryonic stem-cell research is in its infancy. It's been fewer than eight years since scientists at the University of Wisconsin demonstrated how to make these cells. The excitement about embryonic stem-cells is that they can turn into any of the cell types in the body. University of Michigan's stem-cell researcher Sean Morrison says scientists have spent much of the past eight years learning how to harness that ability so they can get embryonic stem-cells to make brain cells or heart cells or insulin-producing cells; the kind of cells that could be used to treat diseases. But Morrison says scientists have been exploring other ways to use embryonic stem cells.

Professor SEAN MORRISON (Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, University of Michigan): People are developing tools to be able to modify those cells in a way that would allow us to study inherited human diseases. People are learning more that would allow us to use those kind of cells to screen for new drugs.

PALCA: Critics of embryonic stem-cells say adult stem cells could be used for many of these activities and making adult stem-cells doesn't require the destruction of human embryos. But Morrison doubts adult stem-cells are enough to do everything medical researchers hope for.

Prof. MORRISON: The only way that we're going to make the fastest progress against disease is by using all the weapons at our disposal, including research on embryonic and adult stem-cells.

PALCA: There is one very practical reason to focus at least some research on adult stem-cells rather than embryonic stem-cells.

Prof. MORRISON: Human embryonic stem-cell derived cells are much further away from potential clinical use.

PALCA: Steven Goldman is a neurologist and stem-cell researcher at the University of Rochester. He says scientists have had decades more experience handling adult stem-cells. Bone marrow stem-cells have been used to treat blood-related diseases for years. Goldman says embryonic stem-cells present unique challenges.

Dr. STEVEN GOLDMAN (Professor of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Pediatrics, University of Rochester): Their strength is actually their curse. They can generate all the major cell types we care about but at the same time we don't have sufficient understanding at this point of the biology of these processes to understand how to make them become what we'd like them to become.

PALCA: Goldman says the reason scientists are so keen to get that understanding is that embryonic stem-cells represent, in principal, a virtually inexhaustible supply of cells, while adult stem-cells just can't produce the quantity of cells that will be needed for cell-based therapies. But Goldman admits that it will be important to do extensive testing on therapies based on embryonic stem-cells before they are tried in patients.

Dr. GOLDMAN: Because of the risk of the cells becoming cell types that we may not want or, in the worst of cases, generating tumors.

PALCA: One biotech company thinks the day isn't far off when products made from embryonic stem cells will be used as therapies. Tom Okarma is president and CEO of the California biotech company, Geron.

Dr. TOM OKARMA (President and CEO, Geron Corporation): We're turning every stone over that we possibly can to be sure we haven't overlooked any possible source of toxicity when we move these cells into the clinic, and we are scheduled to enter the clinic in acute spinal cord injury sometime in ‘07.

PALCA: Geron was the first of what is now a growing number of biotech companies to get into research on embryonic stem-cell therapies. But Okarma says the field isn't growing as fast as it could.

Dr. OKARMA: There will be a surge of biotechnology companies entering this field once the national policy changes.

PALCA: Okarma thinks once there is an administration that will support embryonic stem-cell research, investors will be more willing to pony up the cash to turn basic research into treatments for patients.

Other countries have embraced research on embryonic stem-cells. The United Kingdom, Singapore and China have all made sizable investments in this area. University of Michigan's stem-cell researcher Sean Morrison says he's not surprised other countries are jumping on the embryonic stem-cell bandwagon.

Prof. MORRISON: The efforts that you see taking root in these other countries reflect the fact that people all over the world believe that this really does have the potential to change the way we study human disease and the way we may treat disease in the future.

PALCA: Morrison says work will progress in the United States with the current level of funding, it just won't progress as fast as it could.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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