Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Stem Cell Research: Hope or Hype

Stem cells have enormous potential to shape the future of medicine but may not live up to the hype, according to a panel convened at the Milken Institute Global Conference featuring Brock Reeve, executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute; Alan Tronsoun, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine; John McNeish, executive director of regenerative medicine at Pfizer; and R. Alta Charo, Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin.

The expert panel, moderated by FasterCures COO Margaret Anderson, illuminated a number of scientific possibilities that stem cells bring – from growth of replacement connective tissue to more predictive cellular models for drug development to conversion of pancreatic cells to insulin-producing beta cells for curing diabetes. They also discussed how lifting federal funding restrictions will renew the pace and productivity of stem research by not only allowing more federal support, but also by eliminating the need for duplicative research infrastructure. By opening federal funding to new stem cell lines this increases the genetic diversity and quality of stem cells leading to higher quality research. It is expected that overall morale of stem cell researchers and collaborations between them will increase. All of these promises support the argument for hope.

But it wouldn’t be fair to discount the hype also associated with stem cell research and the obstacles yet to be tackled. For example, Charo highlighted the moral dispute over whether we as a society should derive benefit from an act that we deplore, like taking organ donations from a murder victim or buying a good made in a sweatshop or using a discarded embryo for stem cell research. She also eloquently dissected the “conspiracy of hype” in which multiple stakeholders (i.e., patient advocates, Congress, scientists, etc) have contributed to the escalating promise of stem cells that might never be realized.

The journey to achieving the scientific potential of stem cells will not be a straight and clearly marked path. The FDA needs to be prepared to incorporate stem cell methods into their preclinical calculus, intellectual property complexities will need to be worked through, and a critical mass of dedicated researchers will need to be assembled to advance the field.

Bottom line, we wouldn’t have hope without hype and hype without hope. It’s not one or the other but a healthy tension between the two that drives scientific exploration in a purposeful and thoughtful way. FasterCures is supportive of the lifting of the funding restrictions and excited to bear witness to the scientific journey about to be embarked upon.

Happening Now:
You have an opportunity to shape the future of stem cell research. The National Instiutes of Health recently issued draft guidelines creating a framework for federal funding of embyonic stem cell research pursuant to the President's Executive Order. The public has until May 26th to comment on these guidelines. NIH will be analyzing both the content and volume of comments they receive during this period as they consider changes to the draft. Go to http://stemcells.nih.gov/policy/guidelines.asp for more information.

FasterCures is part of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a coalition dedicated to advancing stem cell research.


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