Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Realistic Look at Obama's Stem Cell Order

President Obama's long anticipated and much heralded signing of new federal guidelines for the financing of embryonic stem cell research will help US scientists learn more of the mysteries of embryonic cell differentiation and manipulation. But in reality, the effect of the new rules will be far less significant for the future of regenerative medicine than most gullible news consumers will ever know.
.....the president’s support of embryonic stem cell research comes at a time when many advances have been made with other sorts of stem cells. The Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka found in 2007 that adult cells could be reprogrammed to an embryonic state with surprising ease. This technology “may eventually eclipse the embryonic stem cell lines for therapeutic as well as diagnostics applications,” Dr. Kriegstein said. For researchers, reprogramming an adult cell can be much more convenient, and there have never been any restrictions on working with adult stem cells.

For therapy, far off as that is, treating patients with their own cells would avoid the problem of immune rejection.

Members of Congress and advocates for fighting diseases have long spoken of human embryonic stem cell research as if it were a sure avenue to quick cures for intractable afflictions. Scientists have not publicly objected to such high-flown hopes, which have helped fuel new sources of grant money like the $3 billion initiative in California for stem cell research.

In private, however, many researchers have projected much more modest goals for embryonic stem cells. Their chief interest is to derive embryonic stem cell lines from patients with specific diseases, and by tracking the cells in the test tube to develop basic knowledge about how the disease develops.

Despite an F.D.A.-approved safety test of embryonic stem cells in spinal cord injury that the Geron Corporation began in January, many scientists believe that putting stem-cell-derived tissues into patients lies a long way off. Embryonic stem cells have their drawbacks. They cause tumors, and the adult cells derived from them may be rejected by the patient’s immune system. Furthermore, whatever disease process caused the patients’ tissue cells to die is likely to kill introduced cells as well. All these problems may be solvable, but so far none have been solved.

Restrictions on embryonic stem cell research originated with Congress, which, each year since in 1996, has forbidden the use of federal financing for any experiment in which a human embryo is destroyed. This includes the derivation of human stem cell lines from surplus fertility clinic embryos, first achieved by Dr. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin in 1998.

President Clinton contemplated but never implemented a policy that would have allowed N.I.H.-financed researchers to study human embryonic stem cells derived by others. Research was able to begin only in August 2001, when President Bush, seeking a different way around the Congressional restriction, said researchers could use any lines established before that date.

Critics said the distinction between the Clinton and Bush policies lacked moral significance, given that each was intended to get around the Congressional ban, based on a religious and moral argument. The proposed Clinton policy amounted to: “Stealing is wrong, but it’s O.K. to use stolen property if someone else stole it.” The Bush policy was: “Stealing is wrong, but it’s O.K. to use stolen property if it was stolen before Aug. 9, 2001.”

Mr. Obama has put the proposed Clinton policy into effect, but Congressional restrictions remain. Researchers are still forbidden to use federal financing to derive new human embryonic stem cell lines. They will, however, be allowed to do research on new stem cell lines grown in a privately financed lab. _NYT
More research on embryonic stem cells will help scientists understand the intricate mechanisms of cell development. They will acquire a fabulous treasure trove of knowledge about many diseases -- both rare and less rare. The knowledge spinoffs from this research will stretch far beyond regenerative medicine (RM) to cancer treatments, life extension technologies other than RM, and a much deeper understanding of biological mechanisms in general.

But all of that would have occurred without that much celebrated penstroke yesterday. And it is undeniable that the flow of NIH funds to non-embryonic stem cell research has been a boon to technologies that are more immediately applicable to the everyday regenerative cell and tissue treatments of the future -- treatment using the patient's own cells.

Science under Obama is every bit as political as science under any other president -- and will probably only grow more political with time. Obama's promotion of carbon penalties (disguised as "cap and trade") are a politicised hyping of the pseudo science of catastrophic global warming from anthropogenic CO2. Obama's carbon hysteria-based political meddling in the energy industry is likely to make Americans far more miserable, leaving them with far less resources to deal with exigencies, than if he had done nothing at all.

So let's celebrate the abundant biological future that will eventually come to us via all the avenues of research being followed. And let us not fall for the hype surrounding the gilded age of Obamanation.

Taken from an earlier posting at Al Fin



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