Bailing Out Bad Science

March 11, 2009

Bailing Out Bad Science


Bioethics: The president keeps a promise by lifting restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research — what he calls “the gold standard” of such research. Judging by results, fool’s gold is more like it.

Read More: Science & Technology

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama said: “I believe that the restrictions that President Bush has placed on funding of human embryonic stem cell research have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations.”

With all due respect, that is nonsense. With Obama lifting the restrictions on Monday, we will now be federally funding research that has yet to produce a single therapy or a single treatment of an actual human being, at least one that works. It has generated a lot of hope but very little change. It is he who is putting ideology over science.

What has handcuffed our scientists is the difficulty of controlling embryonic stem cells and what they develop into. They’re called pluripotent because they can develop into any type of human tissue, sometimes all at once.

Embryonic stem cells have a tendency to develop into one of the most primitive and terrifying forms of cancer, a tumor called a teratoma. Adult stem cells don’t have that problem.

Recently the family of an Israeli boy suffering from a lethal genetic brain disease sought a solution in the form of injections of fetal stem cells. These injections apparently triggered tumors in the boy’s brain and spinal cord.

It’s in the area of adult stem cell research that new discoveries are being made every day. Fact is, there are now hundreds of conditions and diseases actually being treated using adult stem cells drawn from umbilical cord blood and other nonembryonic sources.

The typical reaction to Obama’s move was represented in a Los Angeles Times sub-headline in its Saturday piece describing Obama’s decision. It read, “Lifting Bush’s limits on research will reopen a door for science.” But no door had been closed.

Bush’s executive order banned federal funding only of new stem cell lines. Neither federal funding of existing lines nor private funding was banned. In fact, Bush was the first president to spend any money on ESCR at all. Clinton spent zero.

The Times notes, as we have, that in 2006 researchers led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan’s Kyoto University were first able to “reprogram” human skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. But it claims the potential of these induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS) “is still unclear.”

No, it’s not. They can do everything stem cells from destroyed embryos can do, except without the moral baggage or the destroyed embryos.

This type of stem cell, according to the National Institutes of Health, offers the prospect of having a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few.

Last week, Canadian and Scottish researchers, led by Andras Nagy of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto, announced in the journal Nature a new and safer way to create IPS cells. The original method used genetically engineered viruses to coax the skin cells into a state biologically identical to embryonic stem cells.

The new method uses strands of genetic material, or DNA, which can safely be removed once it does its job. The technique builds on Yamanaka’s advance when he electrified scientists by reprogramming ordinary skin cells into stem cells capable of growing heart, brain and other tissues.

Venture capitalists think IPS cells are promising and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Last year, Kleiner Perkins, the veteran Silicon Valley venture capital firm that helped found the biotechnology industry, announced it was backing a new Bay Area company, iZumi Bio Inc., which will work on further developing the technology for creating and using IPS cells developed from adult stem cells.

If embryonic stem cells are so promising, why aren’t venture capitalists lining up and why does ESCR need federal funding? Indeed, let’s stimulate science, not ideology.


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