Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Stem cells: 6 years later and back to the future

In a press release largely ignored by the media, the NIH said this week it will begin implementing President Bush's executive order to support research looking into potential alternatives for generating embryonic stem cells that don't require the destruction or harm of a human embryo.

While this sounds promising, this is as backwards as it gets in the science realm. Typically, the federal government will fund basic biomedical research, such as stem cells, that is not far enough along to interest private companies. Once the research has reached a level showing its promise, private firms, such as pharmaceutical and biotech companies, generally step in and move the research towards commercial products.

However, due to Bush's opposition to stem cell research, he's effectively caused the process to work in reverse. Since his limits on federal funding for stem cell research were imposed in 2001, private firms, such as Advanced Cell Technology, and individual scientists have been forced to explore alternative methods of stem cell production, wasting time and resources that could've been better spent on exploring the therapeutic potential of stem cells.

Scientists using private funding have developed several alternatives for obtaining embryonic stem cells, including a biopsy -- or plucking out a single cell -- from an embryo, and reprogramming adult cells back to an embryonic-like state. The NIH, which isn't convinced these strategies are feasible even though the biopsy technique is used regularly at fertilization clinics, plans to take a thorough look at these techniques.

But get this, the agency, faced with this highly controversial field that director Elias Zirhouni describes as "one of the central scientific challenges of our time," isn't even sure what research its already funded in this area or how it should go about assessing the potential of these alternative techniques. Instead, it will need to establish a special workshop to tell it what it should already know. According to the press release: "The NIH will undertake a comprehensive research portfolio review to determine what research NIH is currently supporting in this area and convene a state-of-the-science workshop to identify the key questions."

I'm not entirely sure but this sounds like nothing more than bureaucratic delay, which the Bush administration has consistently used to stymie science and medicine it opposes, such as the Plan B pill and global warming. This is disappointing because it suggests Bush's executive order is more hype than substance.

But there is a bright spot. The NIH is opening the possibility that new stem cell lines created by these alternative methods could be added to its registry of embryonic stem cell lines that meet Bush's arbitrary criteria for federal funding.

With any luck, we could see an advance in the state of embryonic stem cell research and maybe in another couple of years we'll be where we should've been five years ago. Back to the future, here we come.

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