Monday, August 28, 2006

ACT, CIRM and the Test of Time

Christopher Thomas Scott, executive director of the Stem Cells in Society program at Stanford University, has offered the following commentary. Scott is also the author of "Stem Cell Now."

Will ACT save embryonic stem cell research? No way.

Advanced Cell Technology's announcement in Nature last week wound up the rhetoric—yet again—surrounding embryonic stem cell research. The Alameda, California, company claims an embryonic stem cell line can be made without harming a human embryo. The ACT technique is modeled after an in vitro fertilization (IVF) diagnostic test called PGD. The test plucks one cell out of a two day-old embryo containing eight cells or so. The cell’s DNA is screened for dozens of deadly diseases. If the test is positive, the embryo is discarded. If no disease genes are detected, the embryo—which quickly makes a new cell to replace the missing one—is implanted. The procedure seems safe: more than a thousand children have been born since the test was unveiled in the early 1990’s.

From a scientific perspective, the ACT paper is interesting, but not groundbreaking. The researchers repeated a method they perfected earlier in mice using human cells; that’s no mean feat. They claim the type of cell they used—called a blastomere—produced an embryonic stem cell line. If other labs can repeat the result and if the lines can make different, functional cell types, that's pretty cool.

But the thing that has tongues wagging is what happens to the embryo. Until now, embryos must be killed in order to make an embryonic stem cell line, a process opponents equate to murder. Here, finally, seems to be a way around the moral morass. Removing one cell to make a cell line causes no ill effects, embryo-wise. Robert Lanza, who led the ACT group, said, "This will make it far more difficult to oppose this research.”

Problem solved? Not by a long shot. Scientists are already picking apart the ACT results. It isn't clear what stage of embryo was used, and the embryos didn’t survive because Lanza’s method removed all the blastomeres, rather than just one. Most of the cells failed to do anything at all, hinting that some are better than others at generating a line. Finally, the embryos used represent a narrow genetic range: most couples who frequent IVF clinics are Caucasian and infertile.

The ethical ‘solution’ is pretty much a non-starter. Religious conservatives who believe that an eight-cell corpuscle is a human being with rights, object to anything that treads on those rights, especially a technique that sucks out one-eighth of its biological material. Hard-line Catholics argue that the blastomere itself is a person simply because it has the potential to become one. Imagine a cell kicking and screaming on the way to a Petri dish, and you get the idea.

A reporter asked me what this means for California stem cell research. The moral hairsplitting and rickety nature of frontier science are just two of many reasons why the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine mustn’t lose focus on proven methods used to derive embryonic cell lines. The ACT result must stand the test of time and be compared to other technologies and new discoveries. Who knows which will work the best for therapies? We need hundreds of laboratories, thousands of lines, and millions of dollars to find out.
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  1. The text --From a scientific perspective, the ACT paper is interesting, but not groundbreaking. The researchers repeated a method they perfected earlier in mice using human cells; that’s no mean feat. -- is interesting when compared to PubPat's argument in the re-examination of the Thomson/WARF patents: that a recipe developed for mice stem cells renders obvious the use of a similar recipe for human stem cells.

    The important thing in the ACT work is not that remaining cells of the blastcyst survived (in the ACT work, they didn't survive but the teachings of the use of PGD in IVF suggest they would survive) but that a cell line was created from a single cell from the blastocyst. The details of that may merit further scrutiny.

    The remark about Caucasian invites comment. Also, merely because people were created by an IVF technique does not necessarily prove that the technique is wise, as the story of cytoplasmic transfer illustrates. No inference about PGD is intended.

    Separately, as to the californiastemcell post "What About WARF: Chapter Two", I did not call the Sacramento Bee a turkey on I will repeat that anyone who thinks that the recent work of ACT is prior invalidating art to the Thomson WARF patents of the 1990's is seriously in error ("wrong"). As for the future, think about who has a license from WARF and who does not.

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