Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The U of MN's stem cell complaints

The University of Minnesota is complaining about the recent court decision to halt federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).

The university's Stem Cell Institute does research with both adult and embryonic stem cells. Some of its work is funded by the federal government and could be affected by the new ruling. Jonathan Slack, director of the Institute, called the decision "ridiculous." (I presume it's "ridiculous" only because Slack disagrees with the outcome. Anyone familiar with the legal issues would probably agree that the decision was at least a reasonable and defensible application of the law.)

According to the Star Tribune:
Slack said that he's one of a handful of University of Minnesota scientists working on studies that involve embryonic cells.

But their main focus, he said, is learning how to reprogram a patient's own cells to act like embryonic cells, which can turn into virtually any cell in the body.

In the last few years, scientists discovered how to turn ordinary skin cells into "induced pluripotent stem cells" -- the equivalent of stem cells -- by adding certain genes.

At the university, Slack said, they're conducting tests to see if those cells can turn into healthy blood cells to treat leukemia and lymphoma, for example, and new muscle cells to treat muscular dystrophy.

In 10 years, he predicts, embryonic cells won't be necessary if this research pans out. But for now, he said, a cutoff in funds would "really be catastrophic."
This is very interesting. Like other (perhaps most) ESC researchers, university scientists have shifted their "main focus" to induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are ethical, uncontroversial, and offer other advantages over ESCR. Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the National Institutes of Health, says that iPSCs have made embryonic stem cells "obsolete," and even Slack says ESCR may be unnecessary in 10 years.

But the university is still committed to ESCR and says a lack of government funding for it would be "catastrophic." Why?
The irony is that the ruling mainly will hurt experiments aimed at using adult cells -- not embryonic ones -- to treat disease, said ... Slack.

Why? Because the scientists need the embryonic cells as controls, he said, to measure their progress with adult cells.
I don't buy that, and I happen to know that other scientists -- those not committed to a pro-ESCR ideology -- say otherwise. From the Star Tribune story:
"I just am not convinced by that argument," said David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, which opposes embryonic research. He noted that researchers were able to use a limited number of embryonic stem cell lines under guidelines adopted by the George W. Bush administration and that there's no need to create new ones.
According to Dr. Maureen L. Condic, scientists do need to compare iPSCs to ESCs (as they have been for the past few years). But she explains:
This does not require cloning or destroying human embryos to make more [human embryonic stem cell] lines. ...

[T]he primate system permits the best in-depth platform for comparative studies. From rhesus macaque monkeys, primate pluripotent stem cells are available from all conceivable sources: IVF embryos, naturally conceived embryos (removed from the Fallopian tube after fertilization), SCNT-cloned embryos, parthenoids and soon iPS cells.
Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan, credited with the original iPSC breakthrough in 2007, never used human ESCs in his work -- he used ESCs from mice instead. He said, "Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I've never worked with either."

Moreover, the scientists who filed the lawsuit that led to the recent court decision, Dr. James Sherley of Boston Biomedical Research Institute and Theresa Deisher of AVM Biotechnology, work with adult stem cells and oppose ESCR. They are looking to get more funding for their adult stem cell research -- apparently they don't see ESCR as necessary to their continued work, as Slack suggests.

The University of Minnesota already has a questionable track record when it comes to embryo-destructive research and human cloning. It would do well to follow the recommendation of Pres. Clinton's bioethics commission, which in Sept. of 1999 wrote: "In our judgment, the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research."