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February 22, 2011

Progress in ES research, despite the hurdles

by Michelle Ly 

As we get further into 2011, embryonic stem (ES) cells continue to be a hot topic.  The ability of ES cells to differentiate into virtually any other type of cell makes them a prime avenue for research in biomedical applications.  They have also been a source of great continuing controversy not only in North America, but across Europe as well.  The recent stem cell research injunction in the United States this past fall and the subsequent ongoing debate serves as a reminder that despite the best intentions of the current administration, ES cell research is still dragging its heels in many ways.

While legal barriers remain sluggish to change, signs from industry and the research community seem to indicate a growing push towards acceptance and expansion of ES cell research.

Stanford University School of Medicine, in conjunction with the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, recently announced that it was participating in the first embryonic stem cell therapy clinical trial.  In doing so, Stanford became the third institution to participate in this landmark trial, joining the Shepherd Center in Atlanta and Northwestern University in Chicago.  The trial, which started in October 2010, plans to enroll up to ten patients in an FDA approved Phase 1 trial to test the safety of ES cells in the treatment of spinal cord injury.  The Stanford team includes neurologist Gary Steinberg, who brings a great deal of experience in the area of stem cell biology and therapy and promises to also increase public and scientific interest in the study.

Attitudes towards embryonic stem cell research seem to be easing across the ocean as well.  Unlike the United States, which bases its current controversy on the Dickey-Wicker Amendment and the prohibition of spending federal funds on the creation of human embryos for research purposes, France has had an outright ban on human ES cell research since 1997.  A 2004 compromise which allowed research with major therapeutic promise to occur using discarded embryos from fertility clinics improved the situation somewhat.  Recently, Nature News reported that researchers and clinicians in France are pushing for a more permissive stance on ES cell research. Amid a polarized debate, French Parliament voted on February 15 to maintain the current restrictions.

Despite regulatory difficulties, ES cell research is not going away.  This February, the University of California, San Francisco opened the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building, which houses the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research.  This $123 million investment continues California’s effort to advance stem cell research in spite of federal policies.  These efforts are further bolstered by new research, such as a recently published preliminary study showing that human ES cells could be turned into viable, functional platelets. This advancement could eventually address the growing need for blood products in the medical system.

While hurdles may still remain in the US, France and elsewhere, scientific progress and investment clearly remains undeterred.  Hopefully, the increased focus on the ability of ES cells to heal, and not on the controversy of their origin, will encourage scientists and politicians alike to continue to work towards the expansion of embryonic stem cell research.


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ES cell research is important as ES cells represent the biggest source of pluripotent stem cell lines. iPS cell research is also important but may encounter safety issues that ES cells do not. The International Society for Cellular Therapy's annual meeting in Rotterdam will feature a Plenary session on Embryonic to Adult Stem Cells chaired by Dr. Elaine Dzierzak.

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