Monday, August 14, 2006

Calling the Tune on ESC Research: Therapies or Tools?

As the California stem cell agency wrestles with how to give away $3 billion – otherwise known as strategic planning – along comes a related article in the nation's most prestigious newspaper, the New York Times.

In Monday's edition, reporter Nicholas Wade discussed the split between those who want to see development of stem cell therapies versus those who see embryonic stem cells as a research tool to study mechanisms of disease.

That discussion has rumbled through CIRM for most of its existence, with patient advocates making impassioned pleas for quick results, declaring the longer it takes the more people die – an argument Wade does not explore. Since patient advocates hold 10 seats on the 29-member CIRM panel that ultimately decides who gets the cash, their views are not to be sniffed at. The issue is also near the center of the strategic planning process, which is scheduled to end in December. (See "clashing interests" for a look at the splinter within CIRM.)

Wade wrote:
"Many (scientists) no longer see cell therapy as the first goal of the research, parting company with those whose near-term expectations for cell therapy remain high.

"Instead, these researchers envisage a longer-term program in which human embryonic cells would be a research tool to study the mechanisms of disease. From this, they say, many therapeutic benefits may emerge, like new drugs, which would probably be available at least as soon as any cell therapy treatment."
Wade said there is a "gap between scientists’ views and those of the public and of people for whom the overriding purpose of research with human embryonic stem cells is to generate cells that can restore damaged tissues."

Wade continued:
"Thomas M. Jessell, a neurobiologist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, said that he hoped to see the research generate new drugs for neurodegenerative diseases within the next five years but that it could be a long time before rational cell-based therapies are effective.
"'Many of us feel that for the next few years the most rational way forward is not to try to push cell therapies,' Dr. Jessell said. Scientists have spent the last five years mostly in learning how to grow human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory and how to make them differentiate, meaning to turn into the body’s various types of mature cells.'"
Wade said:
"Researchers have not, however, abandoned cell therapy, in which cells themselves would be used to regenerate tissue. In Parkinson’s disease, for example, dopamine-producing cells from aborted fetuses, when injected into the brains of Parkinson’s patients, do have an effect, suggesting that a better source of cell could have therapeutic value. 'So it’s the perfect place to go in,' said Dr. Asa Abeliovich of Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. Abeliovich said that with Alzheimer’s disease, in contrast, 'We don’t know how or what to replace.'"
While scientists have preferences on the direction of stem cell research, no research is done without funding. Given the amount of money that CIRM can bring to bear on the subject (10 times the annual spending of the NIH on ESC research), the views of scientists oriented towards use of ESCs as research tools may not be the key factor in determining the main direction of new stem cell research in the United States.

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