Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Dilemma on the Tip of a Needle: Stem Cell Research May Hold the Key to Future Wonder Cures. It Is Predicted That the Market for Stem Cell Clinical Products Could Reach $8.5Bn within a Decade. but Should We Allow the Medical Patenting of Human Embryos?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Dilemma on the Tip of a Needle: Stem Cell Research May Hold the Key to Future Wonder Cures. It Is Predicted That the Market for Stem Cell Clinical Products Could Reach $8.5Bn within a Decade. but Should We Allow the Medical Patenting of Human Embryos?

Article excerpt

In a biotech laboratory close to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Bloomsbury, London, Professor Geoffrey Raisman, is researching a treatment for spinal cord injury using adult stem cells. This week, with no brief for Republicans or Democrats, he has been pondering the presidential inauguration celebrations with serious misgivings. He believes that the new president's pledge to fund human embryonic stem cell research could have a detrimental effect on the future of his work.

Ten years ago in a tiny, underequipped laboratory in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Professor James "Jamie" Thomson, an embryologist, extracted the first human embryonic stem cells from an embryo. Thomson was part of a community of scientists who had been pursuing the "philosopher's stone" of embryonic stem cells with slender resources and huge determination for a decade. Last year, at a conference in New York City calling itself the World Stem Cell Summit, it was projected that the market for stem cell clinical products could reach $8.5bn within a decade.

Stem cells have potential to be coaxed into different tissue, blood and cell types, in the body. In the human embryo they are "totipotent", that is, in a state of greatest potential to become any blood or cell type. But stem cells, albeit with more restricted potential, also exist in adults: in the gut, high in the nose, in blood, in the umbilical cord, and in bone marrow. While stem cell research has been hailed for its prospects for future wonder cures, scientists are divided over the merits of the two basic cell strategies: adult and embryonic. Some, such as Raisman, believe that adult cells are yielding the fastest and safest clinical results; others insist that embryonic cells offer the best prospects. Thus the question arises: where do governments and investors put their money?

Scientists on the Raisman wing believe that human embryonic research holds back medical progress by attracting funds that might otherwise go to adult stem cell work. Raisman, who is not against embryonic stem cell research on ethical grounds, has been funded by the Medical Research Council, and by private donations, but in common with many similar research programmes he is underfunded. If President Barack Obama makes good his promise to support funding for human embryonic research, Raisman predicts that there will be a rush to "invest" in embryonic strategy.

Information on the actual sums invested by private industry and governments into the many hundreds of stem cell research programmes worldwide are impossible to calculate because of secrecy. In the meantime, however, adult stem cell therapies have been achieving notable successes. The Stem Cell Summit in New York cited the use of a breast cancer patient's own stem cells in breast reconstruction, and a heart patient whose bone marrow stem cells mended a severe lesion. In Bristol, last November, the first tissue-engineered trachea (windpipe), using the patient's own stem cells, were transplanted into a young woman with a failing airway, saving her life. No such tangible successes can yet be produced based on human embryonic stem cells.

Under George W Bush, federal funding of human embryonic stem cell work was banned in the United States for religious reasons. Bush's scruples were prompted by the stock objections of the American religious right, which regards human embryos as persons with full human rights. The Catholic Church also bans research that threatens the life of the human embryo for, according to papal teaching reiterated frequently by the late John Paul II, human individuality, or ensoulment, commences from the moment of conception. Research involving embryos has, for two decades, riven churches and religious groups within and outside America, as well as national governmental policies and research communities throughout the west. During his election campaign Obama repeatedly claimed, however, that he would overturn George W Bush's policy on the issue in the interests of its future benefits for a wide range of illnesses. …

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