Pressures of stem cell studies

Biotech: With recent news of a human embryo clone, patients, scientists, politicians and the media have great expectations of Hopkins scientist John D. Gearhart.

Medicine & Science

February 23, 2004|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

Five years after his big breakthrough in stem cell research, the pressure is on John D. Gearhart to do it again.

It increased this month when South Korean scientists told the world they had cloned a human embryo to harvest its stem cells - prompting Gearhart's telephone to ring incessantly with calls for his expert opinion.

So it was that the 60-year-old coal miner's son sandwiched dozens of interviews with journalists between meetings in his Johns Hopkins University stem-cell laboratory and a trip to Capitol Hill to plead for broader stem cell research funding.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about Johns Hopkins University scientist John D. Gearhart published on Feb. 23 misidentified the location of his brother's contracting business. Donald Gearhart's office is in Uniontown, Pa.

Then there was an ethics meeting, plus television appearances and e-mail to answer from patients with Parkinson's disease and other ailments who follow his research, desperately hoping it will lead to a cure.

"It is part of the life of an academic scientist," he said afterward, interrupting an outing with his 15-year-old for a cell-phone interview. "These are the things that we do."

Gearhart was one of the first two researchers to isolate and grow the most basic human stem cells. They're the raw material from which all other cells in the body can be coaxed: muscles, nerves, bones and organs. Theoretically, stem cells hold the secret to treatments for a wide variety of conditions ranging from Parkinson's to diabetes.

Scientists of decades past might spend an entire anonymous career sequencing a single gene. But the searing pace of biotechnology today has put top academic researchers like Gearhart under the gun to churn out breakthroughs at the same time they're handling familiar problems from the old days - such as scraping together grants to keep their labs running.

Thrown into politics

When Gearhart's original work was published in November 1998, the news catapulted him from anonymity into the limelight and the heart of a scientific, political and cultural controversy over the nature of life and when it begins.

Today, continuing that research is just one part of an equation that includes tempering the hopes of desperate patients, defining the ethical limits of science and answering critics who believe that stem cell research is destructive of life itself.

People "can't draw a line between stem cells and cloning and the human genome and Frankenstein out the other end," Gearhart says. "We've got to educate."

While critics press him to slow down his experiments - controversial because they use cells from aborted fetuses - patients demand that he turn his discoveries into marketable cures. Academic institutions competing for prestige and money increasingly demand the same.

Dr. Chi V. Dang, vice dean for research at Hopkins' medical school, isn't shy about it. To be sure, Gearhart's 1998 discovery was ground-breaking work. Now, Dang says, "Let's make the cells do something."

Hopkins has just opened a gleaming research building occupied largely by the Institute for Cell Engineering - an anonymous donor's $58.5 million bet on the work of Gearhart and colleagues. The visibility of Gearhart's lab has risen - literally - from the basement to a glass-encased upper floor. His title, C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Medicine, is courtesy of an endowment by Comcast Corp.'s chairman and university trustee. Across the street is a future business park that hopes to attract biotech firms exploiting Hopkins' discoveries.

"The responsibility and the expectations that build around you are enormous," Gearhart observes.

It was tragedy that set Gearhart on a path from Homer City, Pa., a tiny mining town 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. His father died on the operating table when Gearhart was 4, leaving the family destitute. Two years later, his mother sent Gearhart and his brother to Girard College in Philadelphia, a boarding school for fatherless children.

Girard controlled every aspect of their lives, right down to the knickers they wore on their trips home. The experience left Gearhart with a habit of rising early, a loner's personality and a propensity to rebel - however quietly - against control.

"You kind of walk against traffic sometimes," his brother, Donald, now a Philadelphia contractor, said of the experience. "You're just not afraid."

Gearhart's penchant for doing things his own way was evident in the lab at Cornell University, where he would sit for days, plotting a complex experiment before heading to the bench to try it. "Get away from the desk and do something," mentor Ross J. MacIntyre would tell him. Gearhart would only laugh and say, "In time, in time."

He had what scientists refer to as "good hands," which allowed him to do intricate fruit-fly dissections in experiments that other scientists were afraid to try. The skill carried over to the Philadelphia laboratory of Beatrice Mintz, where he isolated stem cells from tumors in mouse testes and coaxed those cells to morph into muscle.

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