Stem-cell support can't wait

November 09, 2005|By JOHN D. GEARHART AND LAWRENCE A. SOLER

It is welcome news that the major Maryland gubernatorial candidates for the 2006 election, including incumbent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., plan to support embryonic stem-cell research.

Though legislation to provide public funding for stem-cell research stalled in the State House last session, Governor Ehrlich is preparing to endorse this research with a new proposal. But the details of his and other candidates' proposals should be carefully scrutinized to ensure that they truly support the potential of our state to be a leader in this emerging field of medical research and biotechnology.

Embryonic stem-cell research could represent a major turning point in the history of medicine, perhaps on par with the development of antibiotics that have enabled the treatment of bacterial diseases that once killed millions of people. With the potential to become any type of cell in the human body, embryonic stem cells, which are derived from frozen embryos that are donated by couples after they have finished their fertility treatments, are important for three key reasons:

These cells will help us better understand how specific tissues develop and identify the sources of diseases that attack these tissues. An example is Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). We might study how muscle cells develop and then fail to produce a vital protein, which leads to DMD. Today, every boy (the disease is male-specific) with this intractable disease lives with a death sentence; the life span of DMD patients is about 20 years.

Because embryonic stem cells can provide a source of living, tissue-specific cells, they will speed our ability to test new treatments. Today, it is expensive, time-consuming and risky to move experimental medications to human clinical trials. But if you can safely test treatments using, for example, heart tissue cells developed from embryonic stem cells, you can widen the scope of your research and speed the testing of new medications.

Embryonic stem cells offer the possibility of developing regenerative treatments, in which new cells created from embryonic stem cells help the body repair itself. For example, cells that create a nerve-insulating material called myelin might treat people with spinal cord injuries and enable them to regain feeling and motion. Such a treatment might also help people with multiple sclerosis.

One of the diseases most likely to be addressed by embryonic stem cell research is Type 1 - often called juvenile - diabetes. Up to 3 million Americans may suffer from this disease, which shortens a patient's life span by an average of 15 years and can cause blindness, amputation, kidney failure and other complications. People with Type 1 diabetes become insulin-dependent for life when their body's immune system attacks and progressively destroys the insulin-producing beta cells found in the pancreas.

Scientists recently have discovered how to coax embryonic stem cells into becoming beta cells and also have developed embryonic stem cells that carry the genetic material from a Type 1 diabetic. Thus, embryonic stem cell research has moved us closer to a treatment for diabetes.

This emerging field of research now allows us to study how and why beta cells are destroyed and what might prevent this destruction. We have the potential to develop treatments that provide the pancreas with new beta cells that won't fail. But science still has a lot of work to do, and public policy should support this work.

With an absence of significant federal support for embryonic stem-cell research, several states have stepped up to the plate, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey. With exceptional research facilities and a strong scientific community in place, Maryland can be at the forefront of this research by adopting a carefully conceived policy that truly supports science - and patients.

Any Maryland policy should clearly define permissible research practices and establish a framework for ethical research. The National Academy of Sciences has published guidelines that can serve as a starting point.

The Maryland policy should also ban cloning for reproductive purposes and distinguish this unethical practice from therapeutic cloning, which is an important lab process for creating embryonic stem cells that are perfectly matched for the patient.

Finally - and fundamentally - state-funded research grants should go directly to the most-promising research projects, as determined by a board of distinguished scientific experts. The best way for Maryland to contribute to potentially lifesaving cures and promote our state's biotechnology industry is to support results-driven research.

Any responsible policy must include funding for current research projects with embryonic stem cells, not solely for a new building that would take years to complete. Therapies delayed are therapies denied.

John D. Gearhart is the C. Michael Armstrong professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and director of the stem-cell program at the Institute for Cell Engineering at Johns Hopkins. His e-mail is gearhart@jhmi.edu. Lawrence A. Soler is vice president of government relations for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International. His e-mail is lsoler@jdrf.org.

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