Stem Cell Century

by John Quiggin on February 24, 2008

Research on human stem cells has been at the centre of one the more ferocious science policy debates in the US, only partially cooled off by recent claims that the necessary cultures can be generated from samples taking from adults, rather than from human embryos destroyed in the process.


“Stem Cell Century: Law and Policy for a Breakthrough Technology”

by Russell Korobkin (with a joint chapter on patents by Stephen Munzer) is a useful guide to the way the debate evolved in the US. There doesn’t seem to have been anything like the same controversy in Australia, although there has been at least one notable example of what might be called common or garden scientific misconduct.

Perhaps because the US stem cell debate is a bit remote for me, I found more interest in the chapters showing how commercial interests in research collided with general scientific ideals of free communications and with donors’ anger when they found that their donated (or appropriated) body tissue had been used to make highly profitable products.Kieran


wrote the book on the latter topic

.

Much of the debate about the relationship between donors and researchers on these issues has been cast in the framework of “informed consent”, which I think is not very helpful here. Neither I think is a focus on property rights over body parts. The real issue is how to finance the provision of public goods like medical research, characterized by highly uncertain returns.

I’ve looked at how to pay for medical research before and generally reached the conclusion that patents are not the best way to go, a view that is strengthened by a reading of Stem Cell Century. Looking at the conflicts discussed here, it seems that they might be less severe if successful research were rewarded by prizes, including ex gratia payments to crucial participants such as tissue donors.

{ 7 comments }

1

Stuart 02.24.08 at 4:50 am

I take it the second US in the second paragraph was meant to be UK?

D’oh! yet again! Fixed now I hope. It should be Australia – JQ

2

Person 02.24.08 at 9:28 pm

is a useful guide to the way the debate evolved in the US.

The debate didn’t evolve, it was intelligently designed.

(Hey, don’t blame me, I’m just obeying the law that requires someone to make precisely that snarky remark every time someone uses that terminology in reference to the US and government funding of life sciences.)

3

mpowell 02.25.08 at 4:52 pm

I think I’ve heard this prize oriented theory before. Have someone thought much about the practical implications this poses? I can’t imagine doing a startup in an environment where my payout will be determined somehow by a politician. The marketplace is a rough place for a small company to compete, but in Congress they have no chance whatsoever. That kind of system might work if you can somehow produce a reasonable process, but it also has a chance to be utterly terrible. Imagine a system where big companies lobby Congress as to how much money they should be awarded for their research.

The payments to crucial donors part could happen independently, of course.

4

Fitz 02.25.08 at 8:11 pm

“Research on human stem cells has been at the centre of one the more ferocious science policy debates in the US, only partially cooled off by recent claims that the necessary cultures can be generated from samples taking from adults, rather than from human embryos destroyed in the process.”

One wonders why you characterize the discovery of pluripotent stem cells from skin tissue as “recent claims” rather than “new discovery” or the like.

Do you have some reason to think that this discovery does not make the harvesting and destruction of human embryos obsolete & unnecessary? Do you have reason to believe that continuing scientific research should be conducted on embryo derived stem cell lines rather than the new type?

If this new source proves ready, do you believe holdouts will persist in using embryo derived lines? If so …why?

5

John Quiggin 02.26.08 at 3:47 am

Fitz: As I said, I haven’t followed this part of the debate very closely, but there have been previous instances of strong claims being made and invalidated, either because of error or fraud. I don’t have any reason to disbelieve the latest claimed discovery, but (AFAIK) it hasn’t had the kind of replication required to be regarded as firmly established. And if it is established, I don’t know whether it will render research on embryo lines obsolete in general, or only in some cases. Feel free to point to links correcting me on any of these points.

MPowell, I discuss this a bit more in the linked post. I don’t see why awards couldn’t be given in a manner similar to that for research grants (in practice, these grants are, to a significant extent, rewards for previous success).

6

Fitz 02.26.08 at 4:04 pm

John Quiggin

Two new papers have just been published documenting further advances with induced pluripotent stem cells—stem cells that are “embryonic-like” but that are not derived from embryos They relate further successful attempts at creating induced pluripotent stem cells from adult cells in humans.

Here’s a summary of the Yamanaka results:

http://health.usnews.com/usnews/health/healthday/080214/scientists-show-stem-cells-dont-cause-cancer.htm

Here is the paper.

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/1154884v1?sa_campaign=Email/pap/14-February-2008/10.1126/science.1154884

The second paper, from a team of researchers at Harvard, does some important background work in the reprograming methodology. Science Daily summarizes:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080215130617.htm

The full paper is here.

http://www.cellstemcell.com/content/article/abstract?uid=PIIS1934590908000659

7

John Quiggin 02.27.08 at 12:09 pm

Thanks, Fitz. I note the following from the first article

The one thing we can’t say yet is that whether these stem cells generated in this way will have the full potential that embryonic stem cells have,” Taylor said. “They probably won’t. But exactly where that line will be drawn isn’t known. If they do almost everything that embryonic stem cells do, that’ll be wonderful. If they don’t, we may still need to consider using embryonic stem cells.

which appears to leave open the key question you raised. The headline of the second story reads “Discovery Could Help Reprogram Adult Cells To Embryonic Stem Cell-like State” which yields a similar view.

So, I’ll leave my statement as it stands for the moment. Of course, this is a fast-moving field.

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