Increased support for stem cell research under Barack Obama may not have a big effect on medical breakthroughs, scientists at Columbia University say.
Under the Bush administration, there were severe limitations on the use of federal funds for experimenting with human embryonic cells. Change is expected under President-elect Barack Obama, CC 83, but according to experts at Columbia Stem Cell Initiative, much work lies ahead, and embryonic stem cells are not a cure-all.
Since a large proportion of biomedical research is supported by grants from federal institutions, the Bush administrations rules have severely limited embryonic stem cell research. And although private organizations and some state governments have stepped in to provide funding, the efforts of U.S. researchers to make the field a greater priority have been somewhat fragmented.
Many of these different laboratories have not really been working together, said Dr. James Goldman of the Columbia University Medical Center. Theyve been working as individuals. Goldman and his colleagues at the initiative have been trying to focus the collective efforts of many independent research groups. He added that he expects the easing of current regulations to provide a boost for researchers who study embryonic stem cells.
Scientists prize embryonic stem cells due to their pluripotence, or the unique ability to transform themselves into any of the bodys many cell types. But the cells can only be obtained through the destruction of newly fertilized human embryos viewed by some as a form of abortion.
The controversy culminated in 2001, when the Bush administration permitted federal funding of experiments that planned to use any of 71 already-existing embryonic stem cell lines. The cells proved almost entirely unsuitable for research purposes and scientists receiving federal funding were not allowed to create additional cell lines. Scientists poured their efforts into studying different kinds of stem cells, which do not involve embryos. But these alternatives, according to Dr. Chris Henderson of Columbia's medical center, come with their own set of drawbacks.
Scientists can harvest adult stem cells from living patients, sidestepping the ethical dilemmas of embryonic stem cell research. But adult stem cells are less versatile than embryonic stem cells, as they are only able to transform into a limited set of cell types. And while scientists can modify adult stem cells to gain the same pluripotence embryonic stem cells boast, these modified cells, Henderson said, pose significant safety risks to humans. The process scientists use to create them also activates several known cancer genes, making the cells too dangerous for direct therapeutic use.
A more pressing issue, Goldman said, is that popular expectations for stem cell research may be unrealistic. Theres too much hype in the stem cell field anyway, for my liking, he said. Much too much.
Both Dr. Goldman and Dr. Henderson said that in the near future, stem cells would be most useful in discovering the basic processes involved in human development, rather than as therapies themselves. Improved understanding of development, they said, would lead to new ways of treating many conditions that are now incurable.