Scientists Say First Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Trial Has Problems

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jan 29, 2009   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Scientists Say First Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Trial Has Problems

by Steven Ertelt Editor
January 29
, 2009

Washington, DC ( — Last week, the Food and Drug Administration suddenly reversed course following the inauguration of President Barack Obama and approved the use of embryonic stem cells for human trial. Now, some scientists say the research is not yet ready for prime time.

Embryonic stem cell research has never cured or helped any patients to this point. Only the use of adult stem cells and treatments derived from them have cured or reduced the effects of any diseases or conditions afflicting patients.

The Food and Drug Administration has given biotechnology company Geron Corp., based in California, permission to conduct the first-ever human trial for a treatment derived from the controversial cells.

But Evan Snyder, a neuroscientist who heads up the stem cell research center at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in San Diego warns that the research, which involves 10 spinal cord patients with injuries the company hopes to treat with an experimental drug containing embryonic stem cells, may not be ready for humans.

"There’s a lot of debate among spinal cord researchers that the pre-clinical data itself doesn’t justify the clinical trial," Snyder, who is working on using neural stem cells himself, says.

Snyder says the mice Geron used to conduct pre-human trial research had more excessive injuries that scientists would normally prefer to see prior to trying the procedure on human patients.

He suggests that Geron should have done experiments involving larger animals before seeking FDA permission to use the controversial embryonic stem cells in humans.

Those concerns existed as early as 2005 and may not have been addressed.

Snyder said then that Geron should do more animal testing first to make sure the tests would be on the same injuries humans have.

"I’m not convinced they have done that yet," Snyder said.

Jerry Silver, a neuroscience professor and stem-cell researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, told Knight Ridder back in November 2005 that Geron was moving too fast and needed to do more tests on animals before seeking human patients.

"Frankly, I cannot conceive of a human trial with the use of human embryonic stem cells following immediately from experiments in rodents only," he said then. "Many treatments that work in rodents to alleviate disease fail miserably in humans."

Bioethicst Wesley J. Smith says he’s concerned the FDA didn’t make Geron offer more proof its experiments were ready for human trials.

"Why wouldn’t the FDA require such work as they usually do in approving new drugs? Indeed, when the FDA said no to Geron last year, I expected successful larger animal work would be a necessary precondition to obtaining the FDA’s approval," he said.

Smith is worried the decision may have been made for political rather than scientific reasons — ironic given Obama’s complaint that the Bush administration did the same thing.

He said some noted the decision may have been political "coming as it did within days of the change of the presidential guard."

"I wasn’t among those, but perhaps I should have been more cynical," he says. "The FDA should be above politics. I hope that it was in this case. Otherwise, if things go wrong, the moral consequences will be on the commissioners’ heads."

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