Former Head of NIH: Embryonic Stem Cell Research Prospects Diminished Now

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 8, 2009   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Former Head of NIH: Embryonic Stem Cell Research Prospects Diminished Now

by Steven Ertelt Editor
March 8
, 2009

Washington, DC ( — President Barack Obama may win applause from some in the scientific community for his expected decision on Monday to overturn President Bush’s limits on embryonic stem cell research funding. But some scientists say the controversial research is no longer the hot prospect for patients.

Bernadine Healy, the former head of the National institutes of Health and the American Red Cross says the remarkable advances of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) are beginning to subsume embryonic stem cells.

She wrote in U.S News and World Report that IPSC and adult stem cell research successes have "diminished" the prospect that ESCR is the future of regenerative medicine.

"Even for strong backers of embryonic stem cell research, [Obama’s decision] is no longer as self-evident as it was, because there is markedly diminished need for expanding these cell lines for either patient therapy or basic research," Healy explains.

"In fact, during the first six weeks of Obama’s term, several events reinforced the notion that embryonic stem cells, once thought to hold the cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and diabetes, are obsolete," she adds.

She points to the news in February that embryonic stem cells injected into a patient in Israel caused disabling if not deadly tumors.

Healy says that the news should cause Obama to instruct the Food and Drug Administration to "take another look" at its decision to approve a trial sponsored by the biotech firm Geron to use embryonic stem cells in a clinical trial involving human patients.

"The FDA should now be compelled to take another look: Are eight to 10 patients enough, or one year of monitoring sufficient, to assess safety?" she asks.

While embryonic stem cells are no further along in providing real help to patients, there are ethical alternatives, that don’t involve the destruction of human life, that are ready to go or quite close.

"Even as the future of embryonic stem cells has dimmed, adult stem cell research has scored major wins evident just in the past few months. These advances involve human stem cells that are not derived from human embryos," Healy says.

"In fact, adult stem cells, which occur in small quantities in organs throughout the body for natural growth and repair, have become stars despite great skepticism early on. Though this is a more difficult task, scientists have learned to coax them to mature into many cell types, like brain and heart cells, in the laboratory," she adds.

According to Healy, patients who want the best hope for cures should look to adult stem cells rather than their embryonic counterparts.

"To date, most of the stem cell triumphs that the public hears about involve the infusion of adult stem cells. We’ve just recently seen separate research reports of patients with spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis benefiting from adult stem cell therapy," she writes. "These cells have the advantage of being the patient’s natural own. They do not have the awesome but dangerous quality of eternal life characteristic of embryonic stem cells."

Healy also says the iPS cells that have been the latest buzz are also outpacing embryonic ones.

"Already these reprogrammed cells have eclipsed the value of those harvested from embryos," she explains, "because of significantly lower cost, ease of production, and genetic identity with the patient."

"They also bring unique application to medical and pharmaceutical research, because cells cultivated from patients with certain diseases readily become laboratory models for developing and testing therapy. That iPS cells overcome ethical concerns about creating and sacrificing embryos is an added plus," she continues.

Healy concludes that Obama and people who support his decision ought to be careful to understand that his move isn’t really the best for patients.

"Obama stands for transparency, and it’s important for him to make sure the public understands his decision, including that all stem cells are not the same or created equally," she concludes.

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