Stem Cell Research Update South Korean scientists report an efficient way to produce human embryos through cloning and then extracting their stem cells for research. We talk about the latest stem cell research news.
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Stem Cell Research Update

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Stem Cell Research Update

Stem Cell Research Update

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IRA FLATOW, host:

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

Stem cell update this hour. A little bit later we'll be talking with Dr. Leon Kass, the president's chief bioethics adviser, and also Congresswoman Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado.

But first, the latest stem cell research. What's going on in stem cell news? We heard last week in the journal Science South Korean researchers reported an efficient way to produce human embryos through cloning--that was a really interesting story, so-called therapeutic cloning--and then extract these stem cells. Why this is such a big advance, and what does is mean that the research was done outside the US? We'll talk about that. Also three New York City medical institutions are going to get $50 million of private money for embryonic stem cell research. Is that enough to close the gap in federal funding for this research? Where does that sit with the rest of the states who are all getting money to do their own?

Joining me to talk about the latest stem cell research and stem cell funding is Mark Noble, a professor of biomedical genetics and of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Noble.

Dr. MARK NOBLE (University of Rochester Medical Center): Thanks so much, Ira. Thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: We talked last week a little bit about the South Koreans who reported a very efficient way to produce human embryos through cloning and then extract the stem cells. To you, what is the significance of this research from a scientific standpoint?

Dr. NOBLE: I think this is an excellent example of why this kind of work is so important. So let me give you an example from our own team. So led by Dr. Chris Proschel, we've been studying a terrible genetic disease. It's called vanishing white matter disease. It's a disease where children are born normally and then, in the following months or years, the information pathways of their brains degenerate. They soon go into vegetative coma and they die. A child with this disease was in the hospital here and the parents wanted to know if anyone could at least study cells from their child to learn something for the future. Thanks to these brave and unselfish parents, when the child died, we obtained cells from his brain. We grew them, and the results of our studies, recently published in Nature Medicine, have provided us with entirely new ideas about how this disease might be treated.

The development of the tools of nuclear transfer, doing precisely what the South Koreans have done, would enable us to conduct such research while the afflicted child is still alive and would be in a position, perhaps, to personally benefit from the knowledge gained. Wouldn't this be better than just waiting for such children to die?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the fact that they were able to make this method that was tailor-made to individuals.

Dr. NOBLE: Absolutely. That is what's so critical about it. It gives us the opportunity to dissect the workings of these genetic diseases at the cellular level and help those people who are afflicted with them.

FLATOW: I also found it interesting that this is coming out of the same laboratory in South Korea--it's a tiny little laboratory by, you know, world standards, yet they were able to do this.

Dr. NOBLE: They're well-supported by their government. They are working hard. But, you know, one must understand, this research is going on all around the world. The United States is finding itself falling behind in the stem cell race in multiple areas due to the lack of support and the obstacles that are put up in this country.

FLATOW: Do you believe that you're destroying a human life when you extract stem cells from an early-stage embryo?

Dr. NOBLE: No, I do not. I think that that is a particular religious view that is being forced on the rest of society by people who have that particular belief. You know, in Judaism or in Islam, the view is that human life doesn't begin until 40 days after conception. My view, as someone who works on the nervous system, is that if you don't have a nervous system, you never become anything more than cells in a tissue culture dish. You just don't survive. These balls of a hundred cells that we're talking about, they have no brain cells, no gut cells, no muscle cells. They are the evolutionary strategy used throughout evolution to begin the process of development. And, Ira, did you know that 40 to 80 percent of these blastocysts that are generated never even implant in the wall of the uterus and that we don't even call it a pregnancy unless they implant in the uterine wall?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. NOBLE: So, no, I do not think--I think to call this a human life is to trivialize humanness and say it's just a bunch of DNA sequences. I don't agree with that stand.

FLATOW: You're a stem cell researcher in the state of New York. Is there any movement at the New York state level to fund stem cell research there, like along the lines of the California plan?

Dr. NOBLE: Well, there has been a bill introduced in the Assembly. One of the senators has promised a bill in the Senate, but we've not seen it yet. I should say, for those New Yorkers who want to see this work go forward in New York, I strongly suggest they get in touch with New Yorkers for the Advancement of Medical Research--that's NYAMR--at www.nyamr.org. Call the wise and beautiful Jen Wineman there, and she will plug you right in.

FLATOW: Why not have states do the research if there is a lack of federal funding for it? What would the benefit be of having, you know, federal funding if the states can get their own money?

Dr. NOBLE: The amount of money that--you know, we're talking about creating the next medical revolution here. This is--just as antibiotics work because organisms make antibodies to kill bacteria, and vaccination works because it's using the immune system to do what the immune system is supposed to do, stem cell therapies are going to be the next medical miracle because what we are doing is harnessing them to do what they do anyway, which is to build new tissue. It is going to take an investment to do this. But let me put that in real cost terms. Let's say we spend $10 billion to make stem cell research work for diabetes. In just one year, we would recoup those costs by the savings we'd make in medical care. And it should be done at the state level and the federal level, but unfortunately the federal government has put certain obstacles in our way, and the NIH, it does not have the funding to support the level of research that needs to be done.

FLATOW: And meanwhile, other countries are picking up that slack.

Dr. NOBLE: Moving like a rocket.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Mark Noble, professor of biomedical genetics and neurobiology and anatomy, University of Rochester Medical Center.

Do you see this legislation--do you think there might be enough to override a presidential veto here?

Dr. NOBLE: I would certainly hope so. You know, when you have fellows like Orrin Hatch, who are not--who one would say are on the conservative side of the spectrum, lining up here and saying, `Look, being pro-life means treating living, breathing people'--so the key difference between someone like Leon Kass and myself is that he is interested in what he calls the lives of balls of a hundred cells. I am interested in the lives of the 14 million children in the United States with neurological needs, the 1.4 million people in the United States with Type I diabetes, the 300,000 people in the United States with spinal cord injury, the many with Parkinson's disease and many other diseases that need to be treated.

He thinks a ball of a hundred cells is equal to many of these people. I say that because from a ball of 100 of these cells, which are being discarded from in vitro fertilization clinics at the rate of about 100,000 discards a year--if we isolate just a few cells from a few of those balls, we can get enough cells to fill a room. So from a single ball of these--single blastocyst, we could isolate enough cells to potentially treat hundreds of people. So the view of someone like Dr. Kass is that just one cell from those balls of cells is worth the lives of dozens of these needy children. My view is the living, breathing people are my concern.

FLATOW: Interesting. 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number.

Do you think that there's a brain drain of colleagues of yours that are heading out of the country now to do research they can't do?

Dr. NOBLE: Well, there have been people who have gone elsewhere, and there is also the brain drain between states, and certainly there are quite a number of us in New York state who have gotten calls from elsewhere.

FLATOW: I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us.

Dr. NOBLE: Thank you so much, Ira. Good luck to you.

FLATOW: And good luck to you.

1 (800) 989-8255. That was Mark Noble, professor of biomedical genetics and neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York.

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