Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Stem Cell research and cures 20 years behind: millions suffer

Stem cell research relied on a few donations from fertility clinics that would otherwise be incinerated. Couples undergoing in vitro fertilization have an option when their treatment is finished to donate their embryos to other couples, and many do. But some just can't face the prospect of a genetic child of their own "out there," and yet still want to help others, for example, by making a contribution to cures.

Since Reagan stopped federal funding for stem cell research in 1987, scientists in the US were prohibited even from using the microscope in a lab that received a Federal grant to view stem cells. They had to waste time and money to create duplicate labs while patients died. Their colleagues left to research outside the US, slowing collaborations, while patients died. Research in countries like South Korea with weaker oversight infrastructure produced work frought with fraud while patients died.

While patients and their families suffered for 20 years, political opportunists conjured harangues and tales of woe, of embryos created merely for destruction.

Denying the existence of the same American ingenuity,
encouraged by government funding, that invented the Internet, built a trans-Continental railroad, and salvaged our environment from pollution, financed how to make penicillin, vaccines and other "wonder drugs" widely available, they somehow got away with draping themselves in the American flag.

Now scientists can make stem cells from skin. These cells can't yet do everything that stem cells can do, but the discovery is a breakthrough. Now that we are 20 years behind studying and understanding how these cells behave, grow, and contribute to curing terrible diseases.

Rick Weiss: The big next step is to find better ways of turning on the right genes to get cells to become embryonic -- ways that don't involve retroviruses. Many scientists are talking about using "small molecules" that can get to a cell's DNA and affect which genes are turned on or off. Also important: What other gene combinations can accomplish that (the two teams used four genes each, but two are different between them and other combinations with other genes may work, too). The thinking right now is that different genes in different doses might result in stem cells that have slightly different potentials to become different kinds of tissues. Then of course there will be years of safety testing, first in animals, then in people. And then, at least, some efforts to treat diseases. Meanwhile they will be used by many scientists to study diseases in lab dishes.

From WaPo editorial:

Congress should continue to consider legislation easing restrictions on the use of discarded embryos for research. After all, this breakthrough could not have been possible without research on embryonic stem cells. The potential gains from this science are so great that all avenues should be pursued until the new technology is proven.

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