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Speak up, stem cell advocates

Plenty of Americans believe that doing research with embryonic stem cells is unethical, bordering on evil. Some have compared it to the scientific experiments conducted in Nazi death camps, or the US government's radiation exposure tests in the 1940s, which used unknowing civilians as subjects. The next few paragraphs won't change their minds, nor will hearing from Ron Reagan Jr. at next week's Democratic National Convention, nor will seeing the early results of some of the groundbreaking research being done with stem cells in Boston and around the world.

Then why write about it?

Because while nothing may prompt the opponents to think differently about embryonic stem cell research, those of us who support stem cell research -- including the scientists doing the most important work -- have been far too quiet. This, despite the fact that just about all of us know someone who has suffered from diabetes, Alzheimer's, paralysis, or Parkinson's -- just a few of the conditions that stem cell researchers are trying to address.

"The opponents have a very loud voice, and they're very well organized," says Eve Herold, public education manager at the Stem Cell Research Foundation in Clarksburg, Md.

Opponents argue that all research using stem cells derived from human embryos should be abandoned, since it has not yet produced a treatment that you can get at your hospital. That's a bit of a snap judgment, since researchers began working with the cells only in 1998, and President Bush decided to restrict federal funding of the research in 2001.

"We haven't seen the actual potential, because there's very, very little money for embryonic stem cell research," Herold says.

What's so great about embryonic stem cells? Since they're young and unformed, they have the ability to turn into any of the 220 different types of cells that make up your body. So scientists interested in repairing damaged organs, or replacing them, need access to embryonic stem cells.

"I don't see drugs coming about anytime soon, if ever, to treat certain types of diseases, like liver failure and diabetes," says Robert Langer, a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at MIT. "It's a very important road to go down. It may not work for everything, but it probably will work for some things."

(Stem cells from adults may also prove useful, and they are certainly less controversial. But most scientists want access to both kinds of cells, since one may prove more effective than the other in combating a particular disease.)

The core of the controversy -- and the reason Bush limited federal funding -- is that many stem cells come from surplus embryos that were created, but not used, in fertility treatments. By some estimates, there are several hundred thousand frozen embryos stored in the United States. Many eventually are discarded. But only about 11,000 have been approved for research use by their donors, according a study done by the Rand Corp. in 2002. (The Catholic church and most antiabortion organizations oppose embryonic stem cell research, because extracting the stem cells entails destroying the embryo, a cluster of about 100 cells.)

Despite the limits on federal funding, important stem cell initiatives are steaming forward in the Boston area.

Cambridge-based ViaCell is already conducting clinical trials to prove that stem cells taken from the umbilical cord blood of newborns -- another source of useful stem cells -- can be used to fight leukemia and other blood cancers. A subsidiary, Viacord, will preserve blood from your newborn's umbilical cord in the event that the child or another family member may someday benefit from its stem cells.

In Langer's lab at MIT, researcher Dan Anderson has developed a kind of test kit for embryonic stem cells, to determine what sort of environment best encourages their growth, and how different materials might cause the stem cells to differentiate, or "grow up," into various other kinds of cells: liver cells, cardiac cells, or the endothelial cells that line the inside of a blood vessel, for instance. The result of Anderson's work could be a kind of recipe book for pairing embryonic stem cells with the kind of materials that will most effectively foster their growth in the body.

An earlier project in Langer's lab, conducted in 2001, produced a dramatic video clip that elicited gasps of amazement from the audience when Langer showed it at several recent conferences. The video shows two white lab rats, both rendered paraplegic for the experiment. One rat received a specially designed polymer scaffold. Imagine a spongy material, suffused with neural stem cells that came from the brain of another rat. The scaffold was implanted alongside the rat's spinal cord. After about four months, the video showed, one of the control rats dragged its hind limbs across a table, unable to support its weight. But the rat with the stem cell implant, after a little more than two months, was meandering around with just a slight limp.

(The URL: www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/052678899/DC1/1. Click the "Movie 1" link.)

"That movie gives people an impression of what can be done," Langer says, before cautioning that "animals are not people" and noting that a cure for paralysis is still far off.

Nevertheless, I wish more people had the chance to see Langer's rat video; after all, in 2000, millions of Americans saw a TV commercial during the Super Bowl that showed a digitally animated Christopher Reeve rise from his wheelchair and walk. This is the real thing.

At Harvard, Douglas Melton, codirector of the university's stem cell institute, has taken an approach that would be familiar to advocates of the freely available Linux operating system. Using private funding, Melton cultivated 17 new "lines" of human embryonic stem cells, and in March said he would give them away to any researcher who wanted to work with them. (The cells came from excess embryos at a Boston fertility clinic, whose donors had signed a release approving their use in research.) That will help spark more research, but only in privately backed labs, since the Bush administration won't permit any federal money to go toward work with newly created stem cell lines.

But there is much more that should be happening. Couples starting fertility treatments should consider allowing surplus embryos to be used for research, rather than being stored indefinitely. Researchers should be making more of an effort to communicate their work to non-PhDs. The Massachusetts Legislature ought to make it clear, as California and New Jersey lawmakers have, that it supports stem cell research.

"Everybody is just kind of in a holding pattern," Herold says. "The field is really being hampered by the legislative limbo we're in."

In November, California voters will have a chance to vote on Proposition 71, a ballot initiative that would create a $3 billion fund by issuing tax-free state bonds, to support stem cell research at California universities, medical schools, and research facilities. The goal is to make the state a world leader in stem cell research over the next 10 years, even if the federal government's stance on funding the work doesn't change.

Where will Massachusetts be? I'm concerned.

And I'm concerned that supporters of scientific progress here and elsewhere throughout the country have been too quiet.

It's not enough to let celebrities like Ron Reagan Jr. and Christopher Reeve do all the talking.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at skirsner@verizon.net. 

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