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Thread: World-wide stem cell research

  1. #1

    World-wide stem cell research

    Here is another editorial, this time from Naturejobs, concerning embryonic stem cell research activities overseas. Some interesting information was presented here:

    1. Singapore is moving ahead and is collaborating with scientists from the U.S. to provide access to cell lines and technical know-how. Stem cell centers in the UK, Australia, and Singapore are receiving many enquiries from postdoctoral fellows interested in working on stem cells, some are staying.

    2. Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation has launched a $20 million fundraising effort to support human ES- cell research worldwide.

    3. California is becoming a hotbed of stem cell research. The Burhham Institute in La Jolla has already attracted Evan Snyder and Mark Mercola from Harvard. UCSF is establishing a Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Program with a $5 million grant from Andy Grove (CEO Intel). Stanford is setting up an Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology & Medicine with $12 million from an anonymous donor.

    4. Australia provided $26.3 million to establishe a Centre for Stem Cells and Tissue Repair at Monash Univeristy in Victoria, headed by Alan Trounson. It will have a staff of 140 and is beginning to recruit scientists in the U.S. to staff some of those positions.

    5. German scientists are having trouble getting ES cell lines to study and is seriously considering leaving Germany for Britain. Scientists are moving to where they can do the research that they want to do.



    Naturejobs 422, 24 April 2003, 928 - 929 (2003); doi:10.1038/nj6934-928a

    Stem-cell research


    Diane Gershon is Assistant Editor, New Technology, for Nature Medicine.

    For comments, or story ideas, please contact Naturejobs at

    Complex political, ethical and legal issues surround research on human embryonic stem cells. Diane Gershon explores the field's long-term career prospects.

    Human embryonic stem (ES) cells can give rise to specialized cell types of any kind, such as neurons or insulin-producing cells. As such, many claims have been made about the potential benefits of research involving human ES cells and their use to treat conditions such as Parkinson's disease, spinal-cord injury and diabetes. In reality, researchers are only just beginning to scratch the surface. But legal, political and ethical questions surround work on stem cells derived from human embryos, leaving researchers with an uncertain future.

    Many observers predicted that there would be a wholesale exodus of US scientific talent following the decision by President George W. Bush to ban the use of federal funds for research on human ES-cell lines derived after August 2001. But with states such as California enacting legislation in support of the research and rolling out the red carpet to researchers, investors and companies alike, such an exodus has not occurred - at least not for now.

    Legislation governing human ES-cell research varies widely from country to country, even within the European Union (EU). If an EU vote on 10 April to restrict research involving human ES cells was to become law, then this avenue of research might be closed down - even in countries such as the United Kingdom, which currently has one of the more liberal and favourable research environments for the field. It is joined in this position by Australia, China, India, Israel, Singapore and Sweden.

    The government in Singapore, for example, sees human ES-cell research as having considerable commercial potential, and is actively promoting and funding work in this area. It matches well with a recent mandate to train more Singaporeans in the life sciences, says Ariff Bongso, an in vitro fertilization (IVF) specialist at the country's National University Hospital. "Human ES-cell research in Singapore is progressive, enthusiastic and encouraging," he says.

    Bongso, who trained in North America, notes that he has recently been on the receiving end of increased interest from US scientists who are seeking collaborations outside the United States to gain access to cell lines and technical know-how.

    Austin Smith says that over the past year he has received more approaches for work than ever before from postdocs in other countries.
    Austin Smith, head of the Institute for Stem Cell Research at the University of Edinburgh, UK, says that he too has received more approaches over the past year from postdocs in other countries. "They feel that things are more open here," he says.

    That may be true, but there is still UK bureaucracy to cope with in order to secure a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to derive new human ES-cell lines for research, says Stephen Minger of the GKT Centre for Neuroscience Research at King's College London. Although it is legal in Britain to create human embryos for stem-cell research using nuclear transplantation, the three projects that have been granted licences so far all use surplus embryos from IVF clinics.

    Securing a licence can be an onerous and lengthy procedure, and you have to be willing to put yourself under regulatory and administrative scrutiny, says Minger. But it is the right way to go about it, he says. "The policies here are very clear-cut; it doesn't hinder us in any way," he explains. Minger came to Britain from the United States as a postdoc about seven years ago and now runs a neural stem-cell group that is increasingly moving into human ES-cell research.

    Lack of a steady supply of embryos is another issue, says Minger. Moreover, he says, the work itself is technically demanding and labour-intensive. The field is still in its infancy and no one has really mastered it, so there is little technical experience to draw upon (see 'Education, education, education').

    Despite the restrictions within the United States - and the looming threat of an outright ban on all forms of human cloning, including for 'therapeutic' use - there are regions that offer a favourable climate for stem-cell research. California, for example, has passed legislation in support of human ES-cell research in the hope that this will allow it to recruit and retain high-flying scientists, as well as helping to attract investors and biotechnology companies.

    Some US institutions are also exploiting a loophole in the current Bush policy. Although new human ES-cell lines cannot be derived using federal funding, the policy does not preclude the use of private or state funds. Several foundations have already stepped up their involvement. Last June, for instance, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International in New York launched a US$20-million fundraising effort in support of human ES-cell research worldwide.

    Evan Snyder is certain that California will attract talented researchers for stem-cell work.
    Many Californian institutions are now seeking creative ways to fund human ES-cell research from non-federal sources, in particular by setting up independent programmes. Evan Snyder, who recently left Harvard Medical School to join the Burnham Institute in La Jolla as director of its new stem cell and regeneration programme, believes that the conditions in California will attract talented individuals. Mark Mercola, who studies cardiac development in Xenopus embryos and is also ex-Harvard, has already joined him there. Snyder says that he is seeking researchers with a firm grasp of developmental biology, particularly cellular and molecular developmental biology of any system, to staff the new programme.

    But he may have competition. Last August, the University of California, San Francisco, announced plans to establish a Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Program using a $5-million grant from Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel. In December, Stanford University followed suit, revealing plans for an Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine to be set up with $12 million in seed money from an anonymous donor. Other states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, are now considering legislation similar to that in California to authorize stem-cell research.

    In contrast to the United States, the federal parliament in Australia voted last year to allow ES-cell research using excess IVF embryos. The government is providing A$43.5 million (US$26.3 million) in federal funding to establish a Centre for Stem Cells and Tissue Repair at Monash University in Victoria. The centre will consolidate efforts in stem-cell research across Australia and will be headed by Alan Trounson.

    With a staff of nearly 140 when it opens later this year - two-thirds of whom will be PhDs - Trounson says that the centre will offer great opportunities for established and young scientists interested in adult and ES-cell development and differentiation, tissue engineering and transplantation biology. Already it is proving attractive - Stephen Livesey is returning to Australia after a 14-year stint in the United States to become the centre's director of tissue regeneration.

    For researchers elsewhere, such opportunities must seem slightly galling. Oliver Brüstle, a neuroscientist at the University of Bonn in Germany, works under much tougher conditions. German law prohibits the use of funds - public or private - to derive new human ES-cell lines, and researchers can only work on cell lines created before January 2002. Even so, Brüstle says it took him more than two years to get permission to import human ES-cell lines from Israel as part of a collaboration with the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.

    Brüstle worries that such restrictions will prevent German researchers from participating fully in international programmes or taking advantage of new technological developments. They could also make it harder to stimulate biotech interest in this area, leaving Germany at an economic disadvantage.

    Admitting that he seriously considered leaving his country for Britain 18 months ago, Brüstle says that he stayed partly because his grant application to use human ES cells made him something of a "test case". Brüstle believes the ball is now in the scientists' court to demonstrate the therapeutic potential of these unique cells. "The more data are accumulated, the easier it will be to convince the politicians," he says, which will lead to fewer restrictions on who can do what and where.

  2. #2
    Dr. Young,
    Is this bit about California becoming a hot bed of esc research related to Gray Davis' decision? If not, when will the wheels start rolling? Also, do you think Gray Davis' decision will help blunt the impact of Bush's ignorant policy?

  3. #3
    Calfornia becoming a "hotbed" of stem cell activity is probably related to the decision by the legislature to allow and encourage stem cell research, including embryonic stem cells. It doesn't hurt either that there were liberal donors who poured money into UCLA, Stanford, UCSF, and the Burnham Institute. Also, there is a state spinal cord injury bill that may be helping fund some of the stem cell research in spinal cord injury.

    The extent to which California alone can overcome the negative effects of federal policy is unclear. Over time, of course, the restraint on embryonic stem cell research cannot and will not last. It is too important a field and overseas work will eventually drive the field. The meccas for stem cell research will probably be in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Australia, and China.


  4. #4
    This was in the Winnipeg Free Press

    Stem-cell countdown
    Researchers set for controversial plunge the moment new law takes force

    Sun Apr 27 2003

    Helen Fallding

    Using bone marrow stem cells, Dr. Catherine Verfaillie has been able to create almost every tissue type in the body.

    A law setting rules for one of the most promising fields in medical research could pass in the House of Commons Tuesday, then head to the Senate for final approval. The Assisted Human Reproduction Act will allow Canadian stem cell scientists to forge ahead in the search for treatments that could eventually save millions of lives.
    MINNEAPOLIS -- The world's most famous stem-cell researcher looks out over this prosperous Midwestern city from an institute built to keep her from being lured away by other universities.

    Dr. Catherine Verfaillie is a woman of many accomplishments, but it's the blue-and-white, fur-trimmed cap behind her desk that makes her flush with shy pride that her parents have lived to see her talents recognized.

    The director of the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute travelled home to Belgium a few months ago to pick up the cap -- and an honorary doctorate -- from the University of Leuven.

    Verfaillie's alma mater, one of the oldest in the world, does not make a habit of honouring people who are only 46, let alone female.

    But Verfaillie is breaking new ground in stem-cell research that could revolutionize medicine within a decade, potentially curing a long list of heartbreaking human diseases.

    Development of better treatments for Parkinson's disease, stroke, diabetes or hemophilia could be the first breakthroughs. Stem cells also have the potential to repair damaged hearts, weak muscles and fading eyes and to restore the spark of understanding to minds lost to Alzheimer's.

    Geoff Hicks at the Manitoba Institute of Cell Biology sees the field as holding huge potential for "using nature's own way of making tissue to repair or replace damaged tissue."

    Stem cells are the body's master cells, capable of dividing almost indefinitely and producing specialized cells like beating heart cells, insulin-producing pancreatic cells or nerve cells that fire electrochemical signals.

    The stem cells found in tiny embryos are designed by nature to turn into every cell type in the body. They do that in the womb as an embryo grows into a baby, but they also can be manipulated in the lab to create whatever cell type is needed for a specific treatment.

    That raises a tricky ethical debate over whether doctors should be allowed to destroy the life of a five-day-old embryo to potentially save a patient's life. The alternative is using what initially were believed to be less flexible stem cells in tissues of children or adults, including skin, bone marrow, muscle, brain tissue, umbilical cords and baby teeth. So-called "adult" stem cells typically produce only the major specialized cell types of the particular tissue or organ in which they are found.

    But Verfaillie rocked the scientific community last year with her discovery of a type of bone marrow stem cell that may be almost as versatile as embryonic stem cells -- without raising the same ethical problems.

    "Rarely in the history of science has such spectacular progress been achieved so quickly as in this field," said the professor who presented Verfaillie's honorary degree.

    The commissioner of Minnesota's Trade and Economic Development department has a more American way of describing Verfaillie's impact on his efforts to woo major biotechnology companies. He just calls her the "super rock star" of stem-cell research.

    In 2001, U.S. News and World Report named her one of the country's top 10 innovators for research that has the potential to alter our understanding of reality and change lives.

    * * *

    Verfaillie fell into the hottest field in medical research through a series of accidents.

    Growing up in Belgium, she dreamed of Olympic medals, not funny-looking academic hats.

    More than six feet tall and wiry, Verfaillie was a star in the pentathlon, which combines running, swimming, fencing, horseback riding and pistol shooting.

    But after a serious knee injury, she made a quick decision to channel her competitive intelligence and drive into medicine, eventually specializing in blood diseases like leukemia.

    In the late 1980s, Verfaillie came to Minneapolis as a research fellow, planning to spend six months learning more about bone marrow transplants.

    But the research fascinated her and she stayed, distinguishing herself with her work on the connective tissue in bone marrow where blood-forming stem cells grow.

    The next accident in Verfaillie's life was the kind that only happens to the best scientists, those whose minds are wide enough open to see what they are not looking for. Her eureka moment came when she noticed a type of stem cell in bone marrow seemed to be capable of creating not only blood cells but also nerve, liver or muscle cells, fat and bone tissue.

    Her findings, verified during five years of painstaking research, were published last year in the journal Nature.

    From bone marrow stem cells, Verfaillie's team was able to create almost every tissue type in the body, except heart muscle.

    Understanding the potential of her work, the University of Minnesota pulled together $16 million US in 2000 to create the Stem Cell Institute that persuaded Verfaillie to turn down competing job offers.

    Her breakthrough was met with skepticism from some stem cell scientists who work with embryos. It has also made her the unwilling poster woman for opponents of embryo research, who claim her discoveries about the amazing plasticity of bone marrow stem cells prove there is no need to kill embryos.

    But Verfaillie refuses to participate in any attempt to pit adult stem cell research against embryonic stem cell research.

    Embryonic stem cells may turn out to be better at some things, like heart repair, while stem cells from adult tissue might work better for treating other things, like liver damage, Verfaillie said. At this early stage in the research, it's impossible to know without studying both cell types and comparing them, she believes.

    She flew to Washington in February to make that point at a stem cell briefing for members of Congress and she testified in Australia when that country grappled with its laws. An introvert by nature, like many brilliant scientists, Verfaillie never intended to be an American superstar, but she has learned to use her quiet wit and European charm in the service of a controversial field crying out for eloquent spokespeople.

    "I feel I have a duty to inform and put things straight," she said.

    * * *

    When Canadian stem cell scientists wanted to make the case for allowing research on human embryos, they turned to Verfaillie for advice.

    The Chretien government's Assisted Human Reproduction Act currently before Parliament would set limits on embryo research, ban human cloning and deal with other issues, like surrogate motherhood. If the legislation passes, embryos left over from fertility treatments could be used for research, provided donors consent and scientists demonstrate to a new federal agency that they need the cells in order to do their work. However, Canadian scientists would not be allowed to create new human embryos for research.

    The law could allow Canadian researchers to leapfrog ahead of their American peers, whose embryo research is limited to stem cells extracted before 2001.

    If anyone in Verfaillie's institute destroyed a human embryo -- even one that was destined to be disposed of by a fertility lab -- the University of Minneapolis would lose all its U.S. government funding.

    While human embryo research has been stymied by politics, research on stem cells from adult tissue continues apace, with Canada on the cutting edge because of its unique Stem Cell Network, based in Ottawa.

    The network comprises 65 Canadian researchers from 27 institutions who set joint priorities and collaborate on research projects rather than competing with each other, as scientists do in many other countries.

    The network distributes $5 million in federal government funding annually, but its researchers drum up more than $10 million more on their own, including a small percentage from biotechnology companies.

    Stem cell research started in Canada after Toronto researchers Ernest McCulloch and Jim Till discovered stem cells in mouse bone marrow 40 years ago.

    Canada remains one of the top three or four countries in the world for stem cell science, leading the way in research that could cure common diseases like diabetes.

    Edmonton doctors already have pioneered a way to transplant from donated pancreases the islet cells that produce insulin -- the substance diabetics cannot make on their own, but need to survive. However, the organ supply is limited, so stem cells could some day make the therapy available to anyone with diabetes by serving as a source of islet cells.

    * * *

    To understand why there is so much excitement about stem cell research, it's worth taking a look at Dr. Walter Low's rats.

    They are struggling to move days after he induced a stroke that weakened one side of their bodies, but a few weeks after stem cells are injected into their brains, they should be scampering to their food trays.

    "It's not perfect, but pretty close to normal," said Low, who works across the University of Minnesota campus from Verfaillie.

    There is nothing in human medicine that can bring this kind of miraculous recovery to stroke survivors with slurred speech and movements as frustratingly laboured as those of Low's rats.

    Stroke is only one of dozens of diseases for which stem cells could turn lives around.

    Winnipeg's Dave Martin has lived through 41 years of dashed scientific hopes for a cure for his untreatable spinal muscular atrophy. He no longer expects anything to reverse his progressive inherited disease, but he hopes stem cell research will benefit younger people.

    "It might help them out a great deal if what they're saying ends up being true."

    Low gets his stem cells from one of Verfaillie's labs, where Yuehua Jiang shows how to extract from a rodent's bone marrow the "multipotent" stem cells that can turn into many different tissue types.

    It's a lot harder than growing embryonic stem cells.

    A rodent's thigh bone is cut at both ends and the bone marrow is flushed out with a needle. After spinning in a centrifuge to get rid of the red blood cells, the remaining cells are incubated in a Petri dish at body temperature.

    After another step to weed out the cells that turn into red blood cells, all that's left are pure multipotent stem cells.

    By adding various chemicals called growth factors, the cells can be directed to form various kinds of tissues. Through his microscope, Jiang shows how some of the cells are starting to elongate and branch in a way that is typical of nerve cells.

    Back in his own lab, Low uses a stereotactic needle to guide the stem cells precisely to the part of a rat's brain affected by a stroke he had previously induced by closing an artery.

    Stem cell research may be controversial, but it's the use of animals -- central to much medical research -- that Low is most sensitive about. In 1999, he lost Petri dishes of cells taken from the brain tumours of his patients when his lab was vandalized by animal-rights activists.

    Low will start testing to determine whether his stem cell treatment works on human stroke survivors within a couple of years, if he gets the approval of U.S. government regulators. He would ideally like to use patients' own bone marrow as the source of stem cells to prevent the problem of bodies rejecting foreign tissue.

    University of Calgary professor Samuel Weiss also is working to develop stem cell therapies for stroke and Parkinson's disease using stem cells he was the first to discover in the brain.

    Although stem cells have been promoted to the public as magic cures, Verfaillie doesn't want people to become overly optimistic.

    A few years ago, scientists held out similar hope for injecting new genes into people suffering from genetic disorders, but the hype about gene therapy died out after some tragic failures over the last few years.

    Even embryonic stem cells have their challenges. An embryo from a fertility clinic will have a different genetic makeup than the patient being treated, so the body could reject the cells. Organ transplants have similar problems, which are dealt with by anti-rejection drugs.

    Scientists try to direct embryonic stem cells to form a specific tissue, but it doesn't always work. The result can be bizarre tumours called teratomas that sometimes include bits of hair or teeth -- an unacceptable risk if doctors are injecting stem cells into someone's brain.

    However, Verfaillie said stem cells have other uses that may turn out to be more important than cell therapy.

    Once researchers understand how stem cells work, they can use the information to design a new generation of drugs to control the growth of cancer cells or push stem cells already in the body to do repairs. Verfaillie describes it as rebuilding the body from the inside out.

    Stem cells could also be used for sophisticated drug screening -- the area of keenest interest to big pharmaceutical companies. Using heart muscle or liver tissue created from stem cells with specific genetic profiles, it should be possible to predict which patients will benefit from a drug that targets those organs.

    Hicks said cell therapy eventually could be combined with gene therapy to genetically alter stem cells before they are used in patients.

    He currently works with mouse embryo stem cells, but is part of a group of researchers positioning themselves to work on human embryos after Canada's new law passes. Labs in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal likely will be the first to take the controversial plunge.

    Scientific director Dr. Ron Worton said the Stem Cell Network will make sure there is no research free-for-all that wastes valuable human embryos.

    Hicks is Manitoba's lone stem cell researcher, but he said there is no reason the province could not develop a cluster of researchers.

    Turning Manitoba into a centre for stem cell research would require a local champion to push it, Worton said.

    Before stem cell therapy is tested widely on humans, it will have to become much more sophisticated. Worton said doctors cannot simply shoot stem cells into the body, as they do with experimental animals, and wait to see what happens.

    "You have to be able to control it once it goes in."

    Even if early stem cell trials in humans fail, "that doesn't mean it's over," Worton said.

    The first bone marrow transplant patients died, but the now successful therapy won its discoverer a Nobel Prize.

    * * *

    For Verfaillie, the thrill of being at the cutting-edge of discovery -- a thrill that prompts her to get up before dawn for another long day at the lab -- is as rewarding as the cap she received from the University of Leuven.

    The Minneapolis Stem Cell Institute has eight faculty supported by a budget of about $5 million US a year, but its members collaborate on research worth 10 times that much.

    One of the institute's young faculty members will work with stem cells derived from human embryos before U.S. President George W. Bush banned federal funding for research that kills more embryos. Verfaillie also is looking for ways around the president's limitation by tapping private funding.

    Her own four labs keep about three dozen scientists and students busy deepening their understanding of her multipotent adult stem cells.

    And yes, she's single -- her life too full of early morning runs and scientific passion to leave room for an extensive social life.

    When she first arrived in Minneapolis 14 years ago, Verfaillie spoke a handful of languages, but her English was spotty. Now American slang pops out of her mouth as she warns there is much work to do before the cell therapy promising miracle cures is "ready for prime time."

    Stem cell scientists say that day might come sooner if they were not hampered by legislation designed to appease religious minorities and reassure a public that does not fully understand their work.

  5. #5
    Senior Member bill j.'s Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2001
    Stratford, SD
    More than six feet tall and wiry, Verfaillie was a star in the pentathlon, which combines running, swimming, fencing, horseback riding and pistol shooting.
    Please think twice before posing anything bad about her.

    But Verfaillie refuses to participate in any attempt to pit adult stem cell research against embryonic stem cell research.

    Embryonic stem cells may turn out to be better at some things, like heart repair, while stem cells from adult tissue might work better for treating other things, like liver damage, Verfaillie said. At this early stage in the research, it's impossible to know without studying both cell types and comparing them, she believes.
    I like the way she thinks. Seems like a while back some anti-ESC people were using something she said for their side of the argument. Maybe they misquoted her or took her comments out of context.

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