Wednesday, October 27, 2010

With Facts, Scientists Explain Stem Cell Issues

Republican Gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker ran a TV commercial about stem cell research so bogus The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel rated it "false."

Now the scientists are fighting back, with a Madison news conference.

Below are the facts - - often in short supply during a political campaign driven by 30 second commercials.

Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010
Contact:   Elizabeth Donley, Chief Executive Officer
                    Stemina Biomarker Discovery
                    (608) 204-0104 (office); (608) 577-9209 (cell)

Stem cell scientists stress need for continued support of
 human embryonic stem cell research 
Heated election rhetoric threatens to undermine critical strides in human embryonic and adult stem cell research
MADISON, Wis. – Concerned by election rhetoric that portrays adult stem cells as adequate substitutes for human embryonic stem cells, several leading scientists joined with a patient advocate and the founders of a growing biotechnology company Tuesday to set the record straight before voters head to the polls next week.
“Stem cell research is a critical issue for Wisconsin families, and it’s important for people to have the facts,’’ said Michelle Alswager, whose family has been affected by juvenile diabetes.  “Thanks to our state’s scientific leadership, human embryonic stem cell research is advancing patient care and offering new hope to families who have been affected by serious health challenges. As a result, we believe it is critical to dispel myths that have become part of the political dialogue this election season.’’
Specifically, said Tim Kamp, M.D., Ph.D, and David Gamm, M.D., Ph.D., human embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells and adult stem cells are not equivalent to one another and are not functional substitutes for each other in medical research. Kamp, Gamm and others spoke at a news briefing Tuesday at Stemina Biomarker Discovery in Madison. 
Kamp and Gamm said doctors and scientists are particularly concerned that some groups are using political speech to deny the very real scientific and medical progress that is occurring with human embryonic stem cells.
Advances with human embryonic stem cells include the recent announcement by Geron Corp., a licensee of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, that it has treated a spinal cord injury patient in Atlanta as part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s first approved human trial using a human embryonic stem cell therapy. 
While Geron is working to help patients with new spinal cord treatments, Advanced Cell Technology is seeking permission from the FDA to proceed with clinical trials of a human embryonic stem therapy related to vision. Advanced Cell has prepared lab-grown retinal pigment epithelium cells for patients with an eye disorder called Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, a childhood version of macular degeneration. In addition, research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is looking at performing pre-clinical studies for other causes of blindness using induced pluripotent stem cells.
Madison’s own Stemina Biomarker Discovery also has made dramatic progress. Founded in 2006 by Gabriela Cezar, a UW–Madison assistant professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and Elizabeth Donley, former general counsel for WARF, Stemina provides drug screening and other services using human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells for different purposes.
“One of our products, devTOX, is an assay or test that helps screen drugs and environmental chemicals for their potential to cause birth defects if a woman is exposed during pregnancy,’’ Donley said. “This test offers the opportunity to identify drugs and chemicals that may cause birth defects and to study human development in a way that is not possible with other types of stem cells. We also use human embryonic stem cells to identify biomarkers that provide the potential for early diagnosis of diseases. It would be a shame to lose the opportunity to save lives and avoid potentially fatal birth defects simply because there is a lack of understanding about the importance of human embryonic stem cell research.’’
Human embryonic stem cells are blank-slate, or pluripotent, cells that have the capacity to differentiate into any of the more than 220 cell types in the human body. First derived by UW–Madison’s James Thomson in 1998 using donated embryos left over from in vitro fertilization patients, the Bush Administration approved 21 human embryonic stem cell lines for federally funded research in 2001. 
The documented performance of the cells and their ability to divide indefinitely means human embryonic stem cells continue to play a vital role in international research. Induced pluripotent stem cells, derived in 2007 from reprogrammed skin and other cells, show some differences from human embryonic stem cells yet also are the focus of much promising research. Naturally occurring adult stem cells, such as bone marrow cells, were discovered more than 50 years ago and continue to find new uses for treating cancer and blood diseases.
Kamp, director of UW–Madison’s Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, said potential applications for all of the cell types are expanding, with advancements in one area often contributing to achievements in the others. However, the overall progress does not mean one type of cell can substitute for another.
Human embryonic stem cells continue to be the “gold standard’’ for a master stem cell type and advancing scientists’ understanding of the new induced pluripotent stem cells requires careful comparison with embryonic stem cells. Without access to such critical control systems, Kamp said scientists could wind up wasting precious time and resources. Handicapping the ability of researchers to do the scientifically indicated experiments will put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage relative to other countries where this research flourishes. In the end, it will result in lost opportunities for new jobs and first access to promising new treatments for a range of diseases.
“We need to continue exploring every avenue because there are advantages, disadvantages and varying capabilities with these cell types,’’ Kamp said. “For example, although adult stem cells show great promise at being able to repair heart and nerve tissue, acquiring adult heart and brain stem cells would require invasive and risky procedures. And induced pluripotent stem cells have shown a tendency to retain memory of their original cell type, so we still have some hurdles to overcome compared with our progress in human embryonic stem cells.’’
Kamp and Gamm, a UW–Madison stem cell researcher and assistant professor of ophthalmology, pointed to recent studies that highlight some of the differences among the cells. While it is true that the cells show striking similarities in some respects, the recent studies show important distinctions. 
One paper, published earlier this year in Nature by Harvard scientist George Daley, found that cell-type origin affected the efficiency of the differentiation process. A second study, published in Nature Biotechnology by Konrad Hochedlinger and colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Regenerative Medicine, described the extent to which induced pluripotent stem cells retained genetic markers from their past lives as skin, blood or other types of progenitor cells.

UW–Madison’s Gamm said such studies are providing important new insights into critical aspects of human cell development and raise new possibilities for patients, their families and society. At this critical point, it would be unfortunate for polarizing rhetoric to translate into new and excessive restrictions on research or uncertainties for scientists who are working to manage complex interdisciplinary projects that involve the living cells.
“Human embryonic stem cell research is an important component of an intense effort to better understand and find treatments for incurable diseases,’’ Gamm said. “Furthermore, human embryonic stem cells serve as the blueprint for human adult induced pluripotent stem cells, a complementary technology that our lab and many others on campus are working hard to advance.”
Participants in Tuesday’s briefing pointed to the early days of human embryonic stem cell research as a time when political leaders with a variety of viewpoints were able to come together, put aside rhetoric and find room for compromise. As voters head to the polls this election season, the participants expressed hope that such opportunities are not lost in the future.
Quick facts on human embryonic stem cell research in Wisconsin:
  • UW–Madison scientists currently have 21 projects with federal funding commitments for approximately $5 million per year for human embryonic stem cell research. The Medical College of Wisconsin has another $2 million to $3 million per year in federally funded human embryonic stem cell research.
  • Private companies such as Stemina also receive federal money for contract research. Stemina currently employs nine and works on both public and privately funded research and product development. 

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