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

Some declare victory for stem cell research; others say battle has just begun.

ByABC News
January 25, 2009, 2:11 PM

Jan. 26, 2009— -- As the dust settles from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval of the first-ever study of a treatment based on human embryonic stem cells, researchers are now assessing what this trial may mean for the years to come in stem cell research -- and how the politics of the past decade may have damaged their progress.

The study, for which California based Geron Corp. won FDA approval on Friday, will examine the potential of an embryonic stem cell treatment in fixing severe spinal cord injuries in humans.

For proponents of stem cell research, the double impact of the first-of-its-kind trial and an administration that appears open to exploiting the potential of embryonic stem cells is a promising sign that progress is finally on its way.

"I am in favor of anything that will bring us closer to a cure for diseases like Alzheimer's and diabetes," said former first lady Nancy Reagan in a statement issued Friday in response to news of the study. Reagan emerged as a prominent supporter of stem cell research after her husband, President Ronald Reagan, passed away in 2004 after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

"I am very pleased to hear that human trials of embryonic stem cell therapy will begin soon and am very hopeful that it will be successful so that further trials can move forward," the statement reads.

And where proponents were hopeful, some stem cells researchers were ecstatic. One such researcher is Dr. Robert Lanza of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Lanza is also chief scientific officer for Advanced Cell Technology, which is planning its own FDA-approved study this summer which would test a technique using embryonic stem cells to prevent blindness.

"This is what we've all been waiting for," Lanza said. "It has been over a decade since embryonic stem cells were first discovered; this sends a message that we're ready at last to start helping people."

Still, others are more cautious in their appraisal. Dr. George Daley, immediate past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, paradoxically termed the approval "[a] huge first step, but only a tiny one."

And Lorraine Iacovitti, interim director of the Farber Institute for Neurosciences at Thomas Jefferson University Medical College, said much work remains in order to make up for lost time.

"It will of course require a significant infusion of new federal money into the field to attract back many researchers who were frightened away over the last eight years under President Bush," Iacovitti said. "Despite the difficulties during that period, much progress was made understanding which stem cells work, how they work and in what ways they can be modified to improve their therapeutic potential."