Geron & the Demise of Embryonic Stem-Cell Science

By van Gend, David | The Human Life Review, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Geron & the Demise of Embryonic Stem-Cell Science


van Gend, David, The Human Life Review


It was to be the "new dawn" of stem-cell science, but it turned out to be a false dawn. Every year for a decade the press releases of Geron Corporation, a stem-cell company in the U.S., reassured investors that their first-in-theworld treatment using embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in cases of spinal injury was going to be approved "next year."1 And every year the regulating authority in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), failed to grant approval, asking instead for further reassurance about the safety of the trial. Finally, coinciding with the election of President Obama and the prospect of a new, liberated era of embryonic research, the FDA overcame its qualms and gave the go-ahead.

And so, in October 2010, Geron injected me first of several patients with cells derived from IVF embryos. Only a year later, the long-awaited trial was abandoned. On November 14, 201 1, Geron announced: "Effective immediately, the Company will discontinue further development of its stem cell programs."

The Geron trial was the flagship of embryo research internationally, and despite years of hype and a $25 million loan in 2010 from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (whose director is Australia's Alan Trounson) to keep it afloat, the trial has been scuppered.

"I'm disgusted. It makes me sick," was the reported reaction of Daniel Heumann, a board member of the spinal research foundation established by the late "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve. 'To get people's hopes up and then do this for financial reasons is despicable. They are treating us like lab rats."

It also made me progressive media sick; the Los Angeles Times, which had heralded the Geron trial as "ushering in a new era for medicine," could not find print-space to share this nauseating news with its readers.

To understand the rolling out of this "world first treatment" with embryonic stem cells and why it was doomed to futility, we must look back to an event on November 21, 2007, that was described as "an earthquake for both the science and politics of stem cell research." It was a seismic shift in stemcell science that fractured the foundations of embryo research in general and SCNT/cloning in particular.

On that day the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka announced his breakthrough of "direct reprogramming," creating the equivalent of embryonic stem cells directly from the skin of a middle-aged woman, bypassing any need for eggs or embryos.2 On the same day Professor James Thomson, the scientist who first discovered human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in 1998, published a study confirming that these new "induced pluripotent stem cells" (iPSCs) derived from human skin had every property of stem cells derived from embryos - but none of the ethical and political baggage.3 He told the New York Times it would not be long "before the stem cell wars are a distant memory."4

This sense that one era had ended and another commenced in stem-cell science was reinforced in a review of the Yamanaka revolution by Professor Martin Pera. He was formerly director of ESC research at the Australian National Stem Cell Centre, and his article, "Stem cells: a new year and a new era," was published in Nature in January 2008:

Manipulating cells from adult human tissue, scientists have generated cells with the same developmental potential as embryonic stem cells. The research opportunities these exciting observations offer are limitless. The generation of induced pluripotent stem cells through direct reprogramming avoids the difficult ethical controversies surrounding the use of embryos for deriving stem cells. 5

The response was everywhere the same: This is marvellous science, and it gets rid of the social and ethical stress of obtaining eggs and exploiting embryos. The potential for this development to bypass the central ethical objection to cloning was recognized by Professor Loane Skene, former Chair of the Lockhart Review, which advised the Australian government in 2005 to permit cloning. …

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