Monday, June 30, 2008

Memo to Sharon Begley: Stem cells have already helped, just not the embryonic ones

In her recent Newsweek column entitled “What Condition Could Stem Cells Help First?,” Sharon Begley continues to pound the drums for embryonic stem research. Someone with no prior knowledge of stem cell research who read this column would have no clue there is a type of stem cell research (adult stem cell research) which is currently helping to treat patients. And we wonder why Americans are so ignorant about stem cell research. But hey, why pay attention to actual treatments when we can bash Bush and talk about “the promise” of embryonic stem cells?

Begley falls for all the old lines from embryonic stem cell proponents including (I’m paraphrasing) - “the stem cell lines Bush approved just won’t do,” “we don’t have enough money,” “billions of dollars from states and donors just isn’t enough” and “we would have started clinical trials if it weren’t for the mean FDA and their safety regulations.”

This line takes the cake:
“Despite claims (though not by scientists who know what they're talking about) that reprogrammed cells would obviate the need for embryos as a source of stem cells, the promise remains to be seen. The new cells seem to produce tumors, and might not be able to turn into any of the 200 kinds of human cells, as ESCs can.”
The promise of iPS cells remains to be seen? How about the promise of embryonic stem cells? Have we seen anything but promises?

The new iPS cells produce tumors? Uhhh....So do embryonic stem cells. That’s actually one of the ways the test whether they’re pluripotent.

Have embryonic stem cells actually been ever shown to turn into all 200 kinds of human cells? Can Begley point to the 200+ plus journal articles? I don’t think so.
Bush's ban has deterred so many scientists from studying stem cells that "very few U.S. labs have the experience to build on the reprogrammed cells," says Asa Abeliovich of Columbia University, crippling "the exact types of research the administration wanted to encourage."
Let’s see - according to Nature (my emphasis):
The fact that making iPS cells does not pose the technical and ethical challenges of working with eggs or embryos is drawing large numbers of researchers into the field and speeding up reprogramming research. "This is definitely the hot thing right now," says Melina Fan, executive director of Addgene, the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based nonprofit repository that distributes both Thomson's and Yamanaka's viral vectors for the cell-reprogramming genes. As of 17 April, she says, there have been 704 requests from 178 labs at 142 institutions for Thomson's vectors; 514 requests from 131 labs at 113 institutions for Yamanaka's human iPS cell vectors; and over 1,500 requests from 232 labs at 215 institutions for Yamanaka's murine iPS cell vectors. The statistics speak for themselves. Although the Thomson and Yamanaka stem cell plasmids make up only 0.2% of Addgene's total collection, they've accounted for over 10% of Addgene's total plasmid requests since the beginning of 2008, Fan says.

Sounds crippling, huh?

But maybe all those requests came foreign labs. Earlier Begley noted another reason she doesn’t seem too high on iPS cells.
Using a virus to slip four genes (including, problematically, one that can cause cancer) into adult skin cells, they "reprogrammed" them to cells indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells.
Except that a team of German researchers have apparently created iPS cells without using c-Myc, the gene that can cause cancer. If U.S. scientists were crippled by the Bush administration’s stem cell rules, why aren’t German scientists crippled by Germany’s laws which are even stricter than the Bush rules.

Begley concludes with:
If the next president lifts the ban, it would free up federal money to move the research out of the lab and into suffering patients.
Federal money or the supposed lack of it isn’t what is keeping embryonic stem cells from treating patients. The numerous scientific problems like tumor formation, immune system rejection, being able to efficiently change pluripotent cells into the specific cell type a patient needs, etc. are what's preventing embryonic stem cells from treating patients. This is the reason why patients aren’t being treated in other countries where the federal government is completely gun-ho for embryonic stem cells.

But don’t tell that to Sharon Begley. She’s too to focused on attacking Bush to let reality get in the way.

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