U.S. behind on embryonic stem cell research

Published: March 25, 2009  |  Source: summitdaily.com
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Dr. Joanne Stolen
Dr. Joanne Stolen

When I taught at Rutgers University, my department chair was Wise Young, a pioneer in spinal chord rehabilitation. The Keck Center, where the research was done, was conveniently in the same building as my honors class, and they graciously gave us tours. This state-of-the-art facility is designed with low lab benches, so wheelchair-bound people can participate in the research and work in the lab. Dr. Young’s lab has been successful in getting a paralyzed rat with spinal chord injury to walk again. Because of the lack of funding in the U.S., foreign countries — especially China — have taken up the cause, and the U.S. is again left behind in scientific research. There is a network of 24 major spinal-cord injury centers in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Dr. Young writes: “For nearly eight years, the Bush Administration has suppressed not only embryonic stem cell (ESC) research but all stem cell research, even though stem cells are widely acknowledged by scientists to be the most important biomedical advance of the decade. The NIH spent only 2 percent of its budget on all of stem cell research, only 1 percent on human stem cells, and less than 0.2 percent on human ESC research. The Obama administration has just lifted these restrictions and strongly encourages stem cell research.”

Dr. Young continues:

“There is much reason for hope for spinal cord injury research. The year 2009 should be a renaissance of stem cell research. In 2003, Christopher Reeve proposed legislation to encourage research to reverse paralysis. This bill never came to a vote. Hopefully, Congress will pass the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, which many of us have lobbied for, to provide much-needed funding for paralysis research and clinical trials. Many promising therapies have been shown to improve recovery in animals and are ready for clinical trials.”

What many people do not understand is that not all stem cells come from embryos. Scientists can use umbilical cord blood, bone marrow cells, and can now even convert skin and other cells to stem cell.

Ironically, several years ago waiting to file into commencement ceremonies at Rutgers, dressed in our academic robes, I was standing next to Dr. Wise and a professor of religion. Christopher Reeves was to receive a posthumous honorary degree — to be accepted by his mother, who is an acquaintance of mine through rowing. In the course of a discussion on stem cell research, the religion professor said the Catholic Church elders spend endless hours debating at which point an embryo/fetus has a soul. This whole issue is a clash between religion, politics and science.

There is quite a lot of promising research ready to go into clinical trials in Europe and China and hope for patients with chronic spinal cord injury. The U.S. research labs like those of Dr. Wise are hoping to be able to be a major player in this research, with the lift of the ban. The U.S. needs to be again in the forefront of important scientific research.

Dr. Joanne Stolen recently retired from Rutgers University where she taught microbiology. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution. She is now full-time resident of Breckenridge.

-Dr. Joanne Stolen