Human Tests for Embryonic Stem Cells Reportedly Coming Despite Judge’s Ruling

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 30, 2010   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Human Tests for Embryonic Stem Cells Reportedly Coming Despite Judge’s Ruling

by Steven Ertelt Editor
August 30
, 2010

Washington, DC ( — A federal judge may have issued a ruling stopping federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, but a new report out today indicates human trials with the cells may be forthcoming despite problems using them in animals. Scientists have yet to overcome significant problems in animal studies and testing.

The Washington Post reports today that scientists are "poised" to begin trials with embryonic stem cells in patients with blindness and spinal cord injuries.

The newspaper says "the tests are worrying many proponents: Some argue that the experiments are premature, others question whether they are ethical, and many fear that the trials risk disaster for the field if anything goes awry."

The news report features John Gearhart, a stem cell scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who admits problems with the embryonic cells causing tumors when injected in animals and facing rejection from the immune system have likely not been solved.

"We desperately need to know how these cells are going to perform in the human setting," Gearhart said. "But are we transplanting cells that are going to cause tumors? Will they will stay where you put them and do what you want them to do?"

Thomas B. Okarma, president and chief executive of Geron Corporation in California, told the Post "We’re very optimistic," but did not say anything about whether the problems — not needed in the use of adult stem cells — had been conquered.

"We jumped through a lot of hoops to convince a lot of audiences," Okarma said.

But Evan Y. Snyder, director of the stem cell program at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in San Diego, admitted to the newspaper, "There’s a lot of angst around these trials."

"There’s going to be this perception that if the cells do not perform well, the entire field will be illegitimate," he said.

Even if the trials are successful, it’s not a guarantee that embryonic stem cells will work or that they have moved passed the problems with animal studies. That’s because Geron will inject "oligodendrocyte progenitor cells" created from embryonic stem cells — not the embryonic cells themselves.

Robert Lanza, Advanced Cell Technology’s chief scientific officer, told the Post his company is working on another embryonic stem cell treatment that should be moving forward soon for human trials. He, too, assured the newspaper it was safe but did to mention the problems with animal studies.

Dave Andrusko of the National Right to Life Committee responded to what he called a "very skittish" story — "a cautionary tale, wrapped in qualifications, inside a plea that please-don’t-let-anything-go-wrong."

"There are any number of safety concerns surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells, "most prominently" that "the cells could cause tumors." These fears have been ratcheted up both by the immediate context and the nature of the trials," he writes in response.


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