Research Racing Ahead
AP Medical Writer
January 23, 2001; Washington, D.C. (AP) -- A team of researchers carefully injects vials of some of science's most precious yet contentious cells into the spinal cords of monkeys stricken with a Lou Gehrig's-like Disease. It's a pivotal new experiment that tries to determine if stem cells -- "master cells" found in human embryos and fetuses that give rise to all human tissue -- can regrow healthy neurons, a necessary step to treat incurable, deadly Lou Gehrig's Disease.
And it comes at a pivotal time: Scientists who contend stem cells' unique growth ability could lead to revolutionary therapies are nervously watching whether the new Bush Administration will heed anti-abortion calls to block Federal funding for stem-cell research.
Even if it does, the monkey experiment -- an important step toward gaining FDA approval to one day test stem cells in desperate patients -- won't stop. The researchers from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Yale universities are privately funded by Project ALS, a group raising millions for Lou Gehrig's research.
But the scientists, who report promising early signs in the first-treated monkeys, say public funding would greatly speed the hunt for therapies for numerous other diseases, from Parkinson's to diabetes, by letting researchers now banned from such work get involved. The first grants from NIH are expected this Spring.
"To revoke this at this point I think would really be damaging," says Hopkins stem cell pioneer Dr. John Gearhart, a researcher on the monkey project. On the other side, anti-abortion activists call it immoral to use the cells because they originally came from embryos discarded by fertility clinics or from aborted fetuses. Even Pope John Paul II condemned such research last Summer.
Congress bans Federally-funded research that destroys human embryos. President Bush has agreed. Taking stem cells from embryos, done when the embryos are the size of a "period" at the end of a sentence, does destroy them.
The critical distinction -- Privately funded researchers already have culled embryonic cells and then replicated them in vitro to create "cell-line cultures." The NIH plans to fund only research using already grown cell lines so NIH-funded scientists never actually touch an embryo.
Critics call this a "technicality." Bush's nominee to head the Health and Human Services Department, Tommy Thompson, would oversee NIH and decide the issue. As Wisconsin's governor, he publicly praised University of Wisconsin scientists who created the first embryonic stem-cell line as medical pioneers, but on Friday he dodged the funding question.
Regardless of the political wrangling, science is racing ahead. Already, Harvard's Dr. Evan Snyder, lead researcher on the monkey project, and Gearhart are talking with the FDA about how much animal testing would be needed before stem-cell implants might be tried in people. Testing people probably won't happen for another few years, despite early optimism about the monkey project. When Hopkins and Harvard researchers tested mice partly paralyzed by Lou Gehrig's Disease, stem cells restored movement and helped some live longer. Nobody is sure if the stem cells grew new motor neurons or cranked out chemicals to help damaged neurons recover.
But "we're cautiously optimistic" Snyder said -- enough to take the big leap of trying stem cells in primates, the species most genetically similar to people. Scientists simulate Lou Gehrig's in monkeys by killing certain motor neurons in their spinal cords, disabling the corresponding limbs. Snyder calls promising early signs that the first stem cells then implanted are starting to grow.
Critics say scientists should instead use stem cells found in some adult tissues like blood, avoiding the embryo controversy. Numerous scientists are testing adult stem cells, but even they caution that these older, more evolved stem cells may not be as flexible, so it's too soon to abandon any approach.
"Our job is to get the biology done," Snyder said. "If we do our job correctly, the story will be so compelling that the Federal government and the public will see this as biologically effective and therefore a lot of ethical issues will simply go away. We're simply not going to have to keep going back and getting new embryos or fetuses."
[ Editor's Note: Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C.]