New Prez, New Studies: New Era for Stem Cells?

Embryonic stem cell research has been a field plagued by a dearth of federal funds since the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton made the first executive branch move to block federal funding for the creation of embryos for stem cell research. In August 2001, President George W. Bush strengthened the ban on federal funding dramatically by barring federal funds for research on all but a few existing embryonic stem cell lines.

What has traditionally made embryonic stem cells such a hot-button issue is the fact that, in order to obtain them, researchers must destroy human embryos -- a step that some say violates the sanctity of human life.

But Geron's research uses discarded embryos from in-vitro fertilization procedures, which in all likelihood would have been destroyed anyway.

Ruth Macklin, a professor of bioethics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said that the influx of federal funds through the NIH will also come attached with rigorous ethical oversight, as it the case with other federally funded research.

"With a more favorable funding environment -- meaning, specifically, NIH funding -- stem cell research can proceed more expeditiously and more efficiently," Macklin said. "It will be more efficient since there will be no need to engage in elaborate ways to segregate stem cell research from federally funded research within research institutions, as has been the case under the Bush ban."

The Risks of First Steps

But with so much riding on the success of this first step, some wonder if the spinal cord trial puts the best foot forward. Even Lanza's optimism is tempered by the possibility that such a trial will go wrong, an outcome he said would be "a disaster." And Daley noted, "There is some controversy regarding whether spinal cord injury is the appropriate patient population to test the first embryonic stem cell products; some feel only patients with fatal diseases should be treated."

Thoru Pederson, professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, countered that "[researchers] have to start clinical evaluation somehow, after all."

But all agree that a setback at this point -- the death of an experimental subject or an unexpected negative side effect -- could do more to hurt the beleaguered field of research than even the eight-year stranglehold on federal funds. Bryon Petersen, associate professor in the department of pathology at the University of Florida, terms the trial a "hail Mary pass" that he feels may be destined for disaster.

"Pushing the envelope of medicine is what we do, but we have to be very cautious," he warned. "There are new therapies waiting to be discovered, but if this trial fails in a big way it will push the field 10 years back."

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