Human Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy Trials Coming Soon

A great piece from Ronald Bailey at Reason Online focuses on the work of Korean stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang, who, it seems, is only just getting warmed up.

In accepting the award, Hwang said that his research could ameliorate the health problems that accompany aging, such as failing memories, muscle wasting, cancers, and immune system declines. With stem cell therapies "these might become conditions of the past," declared Hwang. He added that cloned stem cell lines from patients who suffer from chronic debilitating diseases will help researchers identify what goes wrong and point toward cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes. Hwang noted that with cloned stem cells we would be "treating our bodies with our own perfectly matched cells," thus avoiding the problem of immune rejection that bedevils conventional organ and tissue transplants.


Before his presentation, I talked briefly with Hwang and asked him when we might see therapies derived from human embryonic stem cells. Hwang smiled and told me that he expected to start transplanting cells derived from cloned stem cells into patients by the end of next year. He expects that the first patients will be a person with a spinal cord injury and another with Parkinson's disease. He will treat them with cloned cells that will be perfectly matched to those specific patients. Of course, lots can go wrong with the early development of biomedical treatments, and Hwang might be a tad overoptimistic. However, considering his results so far, Hwang may actually succeed in using human embryonic stem cells as a treatment. "I promise that our medical researchers are working non-stop," concluded Hwang.

This is what you can accomplish when you have the freedom to pursue your research - scientists elsewhere in the world are still at the stage of demonstrating successful embryonic stem cell therapies in animal subjects. Yet winning this freedom was a long and arduous process even in comparatively pro-science South Korea. Just imagine where medical research could be by now if not slowed, held back or blocked by unneeded regulations and anti-research legislation. As another scientist notes:

Speaking afterwards, Hwang's American collaborator, Gerald Schatten from the University of Pittsburgh, agreed that cloning lines of diseased stem cells instead of relying on animal research could "vastly accelerate" research on many diseases. However, Schatten noted that creating such cloned human stem cell lines in his home state of Pennsylvania is a felony. "It's amazing, said Schatten, "that we criminalize this work. Imagine if instead of one lab in Korea there were a dozen, or even a hundred labs, fighting to make sure we all live longer and healthier lives."

Unfortunately, we can only imagine this scenario today, because anti-research groups and hostile politicians have reduced the mighty river of medical research to a mere stream in most countries. It continues to mystify me that so many people are so eager to see therapies for age-related diseases blocked.

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The proof will be in the pudding. If the South Korean research works, the knowledge will be disseminated via the collaborators from other nations. If the research works, the public in democratic nations will twist the arms of the politicians until they either give in and approve the new therapies, or they are arm-twisted right out of office and replaced by politicians more sympathetic to the constituent's views.

If the research fails, scientists all over the world will have discovered vicariously that those particular approaches are probably a waste of time, for now.

It is only important that the research be done, and that it is of the highest quality, with its results widely disseminated. Now, if it were the North Koreans who were conducting the research behind a communist veil of secrecy, it would be different.

Posted by: mecanique at September 17th, 2005 9:53 AM

to fully become intelligent humans we must utilize the overall benifits of or scientific research and proclaim a healthy human life extension goal as well as become more alert of our own lives
thanks for the chance to speak freely

Posted by: tito ramos at December 15th, 2005 12:19 PM
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