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JACK M. WILSON

Beyond stem cells

THE WORLD is rushing toward a new era in biotechnology, and Massachusetts is among the leaders -- for the moment. Can we keep that leadership? While stem cell research has become the poster child for biotechnology, there is much other research on the horizon with exciting potential.

Research on stem cells holds out promise of spectacular medical breakthroughs, but the source of the stem cells is profoundly disturbing to many. Most polls suggest that a solid majority of Americans support stem cell research, but the moral and ethical issues cause many to tread lightly.

By only allowing research on the 60 existing stem cell lines, President Bush may have felt that he had found a solution worthy of the ''wisdom of Solomon." However, it soon became apparent that there were far fewer than 60 and many of the existing lines were not suitable for research , and none was suitable for therapeutic use due to contaminants. President Reagan's death due to Alzheimer's disease and his family's advocacy for stem cell research highlighted the moral dilemma of the trade-off between the sanctity of and respect for unborn human life and a desire to protect the lives of our loved ones.

With the federal government holding back, the states and private sector have stepped in. Private universities, led by Harvard's Stem Cell Initiative, are also stepping up their involvement. California took the lead with an aggressive move into stem cell research funded by a $3 billion dollar bond initiative over the next 10 years, but other states are developing their own initiatives in the half-billion to billion dollar range. Massachusetts is pondering how it might respond, and that response is being driven by economic, political, and moral imperatives.

While the efforts to allow, encourage, and even fund stem cell research should be supported, it seems that the focus on stem cell research as a miracle technology is a bit overdone. Perhaps it is only the normal human reaction to find that which is forbidden to be even more attractive.

But there are many other new research areas, and Massachusetts is well-positioned to explore them.

Science magazine has cited RNAi, or gene silencing, as one of the most important breakthroughs of this century. Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Andrew Fire of the Carnegie Institution are recognized as the discoverers of this technology. When commercialization of the technology began a few years ago, UMass and MIT led the licensing. Gene silencing, in which small bits of RNA (siRNA) are used to turn off genes, has become a standard tool for research and is now becoming incorporated into therapies. There is much more research to be done, but RNAi holds the promise for addressing genetic and viral diseases that have resisted so many other therapies.   Continued...

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