Where Stem Cells Stand


By Dan Gordon '85, Illustrations by Jeffrey DeCoster

Published Jan 1, 2006 12:00 AM

State Funding on Hold

The battle over stem cells isn't restricted to Congress; it's being fought in the courts as well. UCLA's fledgling stem cell institute received a three-year, $3.75-million grant from the state to train 16 predoctoral, postdoctoral and clinical research scholars in stem cell science - the largest grant of the first wave of allocations to spring from the 2004 initiative. But that check isn't yet in the mail. Prop. 71 remains the subject of legal challenges filed by anti-tax and anti-abortion groups. Until the legal hurdles are cleared, funding from the state initiative is only theoretical.

"I cannot comment on when the legal challenges might end, but it is clear that if these challenges do not end soon we risk a loss of momentum that will diminish the chances of success for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine," warns Gerald Levey, vice chancellor, medical sciences and dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine, and a member of the Prop. 71 board.

Supporters of the research also acknowledge that there are many ethical issues that must be carefully considered, a "difficult task that has taken up volumes," says Steven Peckman, an ethics expert and the UCLA institute's associate director for administration and planning. He notes, "There are some people who believe that any stage of human embryonic development, including stored embryos from in vitro fertilization, represent nascent human life and, as such, are inviolable or entitled to the same respect and protection as living people, and therefore should not be destroyed for research purposes." Peckman also explains that SCNT, the process by which human embryonic stem cells are derived, troubles some because the process was used to create Dolly, the cloned sheep: SCNT "could possibly be used to clone human beings through reproductive cloning. Reproductive cloning is against the law in California and many other states."

Those in favor of stem cell research, Peckman concludes, "acknowledge the significance of human embryos and underscore the importance of the ethical obligation to address human suffering. They also highlight the importance of protecting the rights and welfare of donors and possible future recipients of therapies created from stem cell science."

The leadership of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, in fact, is taking great pains to ensure that there is adequate informed consent and a protocol in place when residual tissues that would otherwise be destroyed are donated to create new stem cell lines for research. "We want to make sure that donors are well aware of how this material will be used," says Peckman.

Adult Stem Cells Differ

It is material that hasn't been readily available until now. Past UCLA studies employed adult stem cells. Although researchers at the institute will continue to work with adult cells, the expectation that there will soon be greater access to human embryonic stem cell lines changes the equation. "Most scientists don't believe that the stem cells found in the adult will have the repertoire of developmental capabilities that we see in an embryonic stem cell," says Judith Gasson, director of the Jonsson Cancer Center and one of the institute's co-directors.

Under Prop. 71, priority for grants will be given to stem cell research that meets the state institute's criteria and is unlikely to receive federal funding. That means that in addition to studies with adult stem cells and so-called presidential stem cell lines - the embryonic lines created before April 9, 2001, which have been the only ones available for federally funded investigations - researchers eventually hope to be able to work with previously inaccessible embryonic lines.

UCLA stem cell researchers are quick to caution that the revolutionary new treatments they hope will eventually evolve for diseases such as cancer, HIV and neurological, musculoskeletal and metabolic disorders are likely to be years, or even decades, away. "This is not an easy task and it will take time," says Hanna Mikkola, a former Harvard stem cell scientist who was the first faculty member hired by UCLA's new institute. "But this does open up the possibility for completely new approaches to treating diseases on which we have made very little progress for several decades."

Most of the 20 or so presidential lines are thought to be contaminated by materials that would prevent them from being used clinically and renders them more difficult to analyze. Adult stem cells, which help the body replace tissues that must be renewed continually throughout life, are descended from embryonic stem cells - the "mother" cells that have the ability to develop, or in scientific terms "differentiate," into every cell type in the body. Embryonic stem cells can also make identical copies of themselves, an action known as self-renewal. It is these two capabilities that make scientists so optimistic.