Stem-Cell Research: Hopes and Realities

The potential of stem-cell research to cure a variety of diseases has been touted by its supporters. But states must weigh whether the investment is likely to deliver a worthy return.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Joining me now is NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca. And Joe has studied this issue intently for many, many years.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA: Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, as the senator just indicated, a lot seems to be riding on this research. There are a lot of hopes that embryonic stem cell research can cure a variety of diseases and that people who are suffering, maybe in this lifetime, could seek some relief. But really, that's a long way off, isn't it?

PALCA: It is a long way off. I think even proponents of this research acknowledge it's a long way off. I think what's interesting here is that people are really convinced that there is something there. Even if it takes 20 years, they're saying we are confident that these cells have the qualities and the properties that will make wonderful cures someday. And you know, they may, but there have been, in the past, very promising avenues of research that just haven't worked out. I mean, 10 or 20 years ago we were hearing the gene therapy was going to solve all the world's problems. That hasn't happened yet. And stem cells look very promising and it's amazing that they are getting so much political support. And I'm sure that everybody hopes they'll turn into something useful, but you can't say for sure.

BRAND: You're saying that, well, it's kind of like a big gamble, because no one knows at all whether or not this will hold any promise.

PALCA: Honestly, it's a gamble. And I don't know how - at the end of the day the scientists may be right. At the end of the day the critics may say, well, you know, we warned you that this might not work out. I think the only thing you can say for absolutely certain is that when you think about it, these cells really do track development. I mean you're going from a single cell to something very complex - an organ or even an entire human being. Studying that process is going to bring information. It will make science move forward. Will it provide the number of cures and the amount of cures that people are hoping for and spending lots of money on? I don't know.

BRAND: Well, what about private money? How eager are private companies to get in to this stem cell research and fund it and possibly profit off whatever comes out of it?

PALCA: Well, I think everybody, they're eager to profit.

BRAND: Yeah.

PALCA: That goes without saying. It's one of the things that critics of embryonic stem cell research point to. They say, well, if these things are so promising, you should certainly - people in industry would be throwing money to get research and to jump into this. The truth is, it is a long way off and companies usually don't like to pick up new technologies until they are little more mature, shall we say. The big companies are holding back. An truthfully, I think the investment capital world is holding back a little bit to see something that actually works in a human being or in an animal model from an embryonic stem cell work so convincingly that it's worth putting a lot of money into it in terms of something that will pay off in investment timeframe.

BRAND: Joe Palca, NPR's science correspondent. Thank you.

PALCA: You're welcome, Madeleine.

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