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The rush to research

by Mike SchwartzThe Press Enterprise
November 6th, 2004

Some say elite of stem-cell world can be lured to area
Fueled by visions of Prop. 71 dollars and high-tech cures, Southland biomedical investigators aim to turn the region, including the Inland Empire, into a mecca of embryonic stem-cell research.

California voters this week passed $3 billion in state grant funding. The victory spurred predictions that the law will woo the world's top talent in this new field and accelerate advances in treating such diseases as Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's, cancer and spinal-cord injuries.

"Anyone who understands the technology's potential can't help being more enthusiastic now," said Dr. John Yu, co-director of the Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Yu predicts that the first practical stem-cell therapies - likely for treating Parkinson's and brain tumors - could be available within five to eight years.

Others, however, are not convinced. The Catholic Church and fundamentalist religious groups, who brand stem-cell research as immoral, weren't swayed by Prop. 71's sweeping victory.

And even some experts not opposed to the concept offered objections about the rush to research. Critics question whether funds can be allocated fairly and fear that conflicts of interest could put women who donate embryos at risk.

"California is in a financial crisis," said David Winickoff, assistant professor of bioethics and society at the University of California, Berkeley.

"There's a problem making big grant-funding decisions through an initiative process without screening through legislative experts who know the nitty gritty of fiscal issues."

Inland Researchers Eager

Both UC Riverside and Loma Linda University, a Seventh-day Adventist institution, intend to start embryonic stem-cell research programs of their own.

The new law "offers a great possibility we may eventually save or enhance many lives and cure many diseases," said Gerald R. Winslow, Loma Linda University's professor of Christian ethics and dean, Faculty of Religion. "That's also an obligation that grows out of compassion and often is borne of a commitment to faith."

The Seventh-day Adventist church has taken no official position regarding the current stem-cell debate, Winslow said, but its 1999 statement on birth control and its 1992 guidelines on abortion clearly show that Adventists believe human life, at all stages of development, should be treated with respect. Unlike some other Christian denominations, the church has chosen not to define the precise moment human life begins - an instance science finds hard to pinpoint, he said.

As science opens new vistas, Winslow said, stem-cell research will present complex moral and ethical dilemmas that defy simplistic solutions - and will force Christians to re-examine their convictions.

Although Loma Linda has a bone-marrow transplant program involving adult stem cells, Barry Taylor, vice chancellor for research affairs at the university, acknowledged that establishing an embryonic program will be expensive and require high-priced researchers with special expertise. "It may take us at least two years to get started," said Taylor, a cellular biologist.

Manuela Martins-Green, associate professor of cell biology at UCR, said the university hopes to launch a stem-cell research program and join colleagues already at work in the field at other UC campuses.

"I can't yet say how we'll do it. It's all so very new," said Martins-Green, who chairs the school's academic senate

"This is basic bench research that won't affect us today or tomorrow," said Dr. Elber Camacho, medical director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs. But, Camacho said, once stem-cell technology enters clinical trials, Desert Regional will be among the first to participate "to finally determine if a treatment is clinically useful."

When public institutions secure funding, private scientific firms will be there to benefit. Chemicon International Inc., a Temecula-based supplier of materials used in research, expects a sales boom.

"One of our larger lines includes products for stem-cell research," said Chemicon president Jeffrey Linton. "Certainly, if more labs are doing stem-cell research, they'll hopefully be purchasing materials from us."

Chemicon now offers a research starter kit based on mouse embryonic stem cells. "But as laboratories move into human trials, we'll react according to market needs," said Patrick Schneider, Chemicon's vice president of research and development.

Fast-tracking Research

Stem cells are the body's "master" cells - considered the building blocks of all other tissues, with the potential to transform into nearly any type of cell. Stem-cell research is based on the belief that these cells, if properly stimulated, someday can provide breakthrough cures and treatments.

Although researchers can harvest stem cells from adults, fetuses and umbilical cords, they would much prefer embryonic stem cells, which are more malleable and promising as potential therapies.

In 2001, the Bush administration enacted restrictions that prevented the National Institutes of Health from approving grants for any stem-cell research involving the destruction of human embryos. Out of 78 approved stem lines, only 19 currently remain available to laboratories.

Backers of the new California law hope it will circumvent those federal restrictions and make more stem lines available. It will establish a California Institute for Regenerative Medicine charged with regulating stem-cell research and allocating funds via grants and loans for research and laboratory construction.

A 29-member oversight committee composed of UC and other college administrators, disease advocates and representatives from the private biotech industry will govern the institute.

But Winickoff of UC Berkeley contends that "Independent Citizens Oversight Committee" could be a misnomer. "It will be composed of extremely interested parties who want funding for their laboratory or disease, with no one speaking for the general public," he said. "My central worry is that not enough thought has gone into the institute's structure."

Lingering Anxieties

Critics of embryonic research still argue that harvesting this material violates the sanctity of human life, even in its earliest stages.

But bioethicist Winslow replies that more than 100,000 embryos conceived in fertility clinics are in frozen storage - unused and unwanted - nationwide.

"Rather than eventually discarding them, they could be used to help improve people's lives," he said. "People who believe embryos are little citizens have ethical problems from the start. I see a big difference between a stored embryo and a fetus in gestation."

Winickoff expressed concerns that an oversight committee eager to set research in motion and please special-interest groups such as universities, biotech companies and disease-advocacy groups could spur a drive to coerce women to donate embryos for profit and put their health at risk.

"Are these the right people to be writing the rules?" he asked. "Important social questions are emerging on the horizon. I contend there may have been a better way to set up the governance of this research."

Winickoff also worries that - short of cloning - the technology, once refined, could lead to "designer" babies. "We're talking about screening embryos for particular traits desired by parents," he said.

Winslow doesn't think embryonic cell research will lead to cloning people. "The word cloning obscures what researchers are really doing," he said. "Therapeutic cloning is designed to replace specific tissues that are damaged or diseased with healthy ones."

Keeping Cells Separate

The research boom could also spur a construction bonanza. The Bush administration's rules require that embryonic stem-cell research must be conducted in separate lab facilities from government-approved investigations. This means that centers applying for grants will have to spend their initial funds on new buildings.

"The non-approved lines will have to be physically segregated from any other research supported by the federal government," said Dr. Jerome Zack, associate director of the UCLA AIDS Institute at the David Geffen School of Medicine.

Loma Linda's Taylor said this restriction is nothing new in the research world. "We sometimes have to work under conditions that are less than ideal," he said.

"We've had some research supported by industrial money and others by federal funds," Taylor explained. "At times we've had to keep them separated."

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