Could Nobel Herald Boost for Stem Cells?

With many scientists concerned that the United States may be falling behind other countries in the race to exploit the potential of stem cells, some hope the Nobel Prize accorded to two scientists from the United States and one from the United Kingdom for a critical gene manipulation technique could jump-start political progress in the field.

The trio of scientists that developed a technique called gene targeting was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday.

Sir Martin J. Evans of Cardiff University in Wales, one of the scientists, was the first to discover embryonic stem cells in the body — a discovery that some say launched the stem cell revolution the world over.

Today, countries including Australia, Belgium, China, India, Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom and others are moving forward with research on human embryonic stem cells — research that some believe is already showing promise in the treatment and cure of a host of diseases and conditions.

Indeed, the first therapies based on human neural stem cells have already entered clinical trials — scientists expect therapies based on the more controversial human embryonic stem cells to enter clinical trials within the next couple of years.

But thus far, the restrictive stance on funding and research of human embryonic stem cells adopted in the United States has largely prevented this branch of stem cell study from progressing in this country.

"Our group and others have already shown that we can treat Parkinson's in animals using human dopamine neurons derived from human embryonic stem cells," said Dr. Curt Freed, director of the University of Colorado School of Medicine Neurotransplantation Program for Parkinson's Disease in Denver.

"Provided that the political and funding climates become more favorable than during the current Bush administration, treatment of Parkinson patients with cells derived from human embryonic stem cells should take place in less than five years in the United States, and perhaps earlier elsewhere," Freed said.

Political Forces Holding the U.S. Back?

Helen Blau, director of the Baxter Laboratory for Genetic Pharmacology at Stanford University, says the United States is "lagging badly" in stem cell research when compared to other countries. She adds that she hopes the award will make a difference in this trend.

"Perhaps the U.S. government will note that foreign countries are being honored in this arena and that we had better get our act together in this country, or be left in the dust," Blau said. "It is tragic that U.S. science is losing its long-term advantage in the development of novel therapies."

"The prize may draw political attention to the importance of stem cell research," Freed said.

However, some researchers feel the award will have little, if any, impact on human embryonic stem cell research — ironically, a field of study to which the gene targeting advance has greatly contributed.

"The drivers for public policy of stem cell research has never had much to do with science and I can't imagine this well-deserved recognition of superb scientific discovery will have any substantial impact on the religious perception of research with embryonic cells and the connection drawn to fetal life," said Dr. Daniel Salomon, associate professor at The Scripps Research Institute in the Department of Molecular and Experimental Medicine in La Jolla, Calif.

At the heart of this problem, many say, is a lack of funding.

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