Following rules doesn't pay

Published: Wednesday 15 April 2009

Organizations that continued with embryonic stem cell research benefit

STEM cell therapy promises cures for diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Understandably, patients associations fretted when former US president George Bush refused to provide federal funds for research eight years ago. His decision was primarily moralistic--embryos should not be used to derive stem cells. He earmarked funding only for research on adult stem cells and already existing lines of embryonic stem cells. In these eight years, adult stem cell research made some headway. But many felt the real answers lay in working with embryonic stem cells. Now, private funders did not share Bush's ethical dilemma and so research went on in many places, with outcomes patented. As the March 20, 2009 issue of Science reveals, private clinics in many countries offer stem cell-based therapies for ailments ranging from heart disease to autism. States like California also funded embryonic stem cell research. In February 2007, the state granted around US $ 45 million to various universities and non-government organizations, more than the federal limit of US $ 25 million. In January 2009, the US Food and Drug Administation permitted biotech giant Geron Corp to conduct clinical trials using products prepared from an embryonic stem cell line.

As Barack Obama lifts the ban, where could these developments tend to? For one, select group of researchers, mainly in private research institutes, immediately go ahead in the race. Effectively, this means if treatment are found, only such groups would draw first blood, while also restricting access to treatment. The real problem is public research organizations will find it difficult to bridge the eight-year research gap. In any case, for many researchers the availability of embryonic stem cells now poses serious existential and ethical questions. The details of the new policy have not been set down. The source of embryonic stem cells eligible for funding is yet to be defined. Many scientists prefer lines created through cloning, which provides an option of tailoring treatment for the patient, for patients' cells are used to create an embryo. But there is no federal law on cloning and some feel Obama's decision would support cloning. Once again, the debate on the source of the embryonic stem cells is thrown wide open.

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