News About Stem Cells: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Posted by Pete Shanks on January 9th, 2013

Adult Stem Cells

A somewhat breathless headline in The Atlantic recently declared 2013 to be the Year of the Stem Cell. Which may not be good news for the field: There's been lots going on in the last couple of weeks, some of it hopeful, but some of it downright scandalous.

First the unequivocally good news: The U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene to stop federal funding of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. This ends a suit brought by a pair of researchers who work on adult stem cells; they technically won a brief stay on funding but that was suspended and then overturned on appeal, and the appeal will not be reconsidered. The policy President Obama put in place in 2009 will therefore continue.

Also promising is that ACT's clinical trials of ESC-based therapies are in process, thus far successfully, and the clinical trial Geron suspended will soon resume. Research continues on iPS cells, some of it ethically problematic, but some potentially very useful.

In the glass-half-full category is the growing media attention to the dangers posed by stem-cell scam artists. Perhaps the most extraordinary story is that of a woman who had a face lift that used her own adult stem cells, which led to small chunks of bone forming in her eyelid. Fortunately the FDA seems to be moving to regulate stem-cell clinics, of which the most discussed in the U.S. is Celltex. Paul Knoepfler, the prominent stem-cell researcher and blogger, commenting on a recent story about the company's troubles with the FDA, points out:

The worst-case scenario is not that the therapy won't work, but rather that it will kill or seriously injure the patient.

Meanwhile, Celltex is engaged in lawsuits with its former partner, RNL Bio. (Incidentally, the former bioethicist Glenn McGee, whose brief tenure with Celltex raised eyebrows last year, is now with RNL Europe GmbH, as its "key executive.") Meanwhile, RNL Bio is in legal trouble in Korea again, this time for smuggling stem cells out of the country and into China and Japan.

But if that's bad, this (via Haaretz) could be ugly:

Stem cell tourism prepares for take-off
Though prohibited in the West, innovative treatment in Eastern Europe and Asia is attracting a growing number of desperately ill people.

There is more, and in the western hemisphere. For instance, the Bahamas is proposing to include stem cells as "an important part of the country's medical tourism thrust." The government task force rejects the use of ESCs, but embraces iPS and adult stem cell technology, in the hopes that it will "jump start a more than $100 million medical tourism industry."

The stem cell business is developing rapidly, and increasingly international in scope. Clearly there are some delicate issues about intrusion into personal decisions. Indeed, Arnold Caplan, of Case Western, has suggested that if you want to pay $25,000 for a placebo, "go do it." That seems, at best, to ignore the real-world consequences: Desperate people may have a right to choose high-risk, low-probability courses of action if they affect no one but themselves, but does anyone really think there won't be shysters ready to defraud them?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:


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