US

Democrats’ embryonic stem cell strategy hits scientific wall

The second type is called IPS stem cell technology. It was developed by Japanese researchers in 2007, and uses a surprisingly simple cocktail of human biochemicals to make ordinary cells, such as skin cells, revert into embryo-like cells.  IPS stands for “induced pluripotent stem cells.”

IPS cells are not used for transplants. Instead, they are grown into clumps of kidney cells, brain cells, heart cells, or whatever is required. Scientists working with drug companies use those clumps as human lab rats. This technology promises to help bring new drugs to market in record time, at a lower cost, and with fewer side effects.

Someday, vats of IPS cells may be used to produce health-boosting biochemicals, or to be transplanted back into human patients.

But Geron’s stem cell technology used cells taken from embryo-stage human beings. Extracting the cells killed the embryos, ensuring opposition from social conservatives and some left-of-center groups.

Geron had planned to sell its embryo stem cells for transplants and for drug development.

Some of its stem cells were to be transplanted back into humans. But if even a few stem cells went rogue, they would result in cancer — and a lawsuit.

To minimize those risks, Geron planned to grow batches of cells from human embryos that were themselves created in its lab.  The technology was so complex, risky and politically controversial that the company had managed to test these Franken-embryonic stem cells in only two people by this fall. The company did not release the test results when it ended research.

The company expected to make most of its money by selling embryonic stem cells to scientists who are trying to develop and test new drugs. But now the drug research market has been mostly taken over by the uncontroversial, low-risk IPS technology.

Geron’s failure is actually good for the embryo cell technology, argues Caplan. That’s because its technology is not ready for clinical trials, and a botched medical test could discredit the technology and choke off investment, he said.

From 2000 onwards, a coalition of Democratic legislators, pharmaceutical and university lobbyists, and abortion-choice activists and many sympathetic progressive groups, slammed President George W. Bush’s August 2001 compromise, ostensibly because he did not fully endorse and fund Geron’s embryo technology.

The Democrats used the dispute to paint conservatives as uneducated religious opponents of science, while also painting Democrats as science-loving, kind-hearted funders of life-saving cures for ailing voters and their families.