13 Oct Wisconsin researchers defend stem cell company
Milwaukee, Wis. – Now that the dust has settled in the case of Advanced Cell Technology vs. critics in the scientific community, just what is the judgment of Wisconsin scientists as to the ethical behavior of the Alameda, Calif.-based company?
The question was put to three stem cell researchers who recently spoke on stem cell basics at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Unlike ACT’s most vocal critics, who charged fraud and suggested the company exaggerates its findings whenever it needs venture capital, Clive Svendsen, Stephen Duncan, and John Lough said there is some merit to the company’s discovery.
The controversy began in late August, when ACT Vice President of Research and Scientific Development Robert Lanza published a paper describing a new technique in the peer-reviewed journal Nature. According to the paper, the technique enabled scientists to develop human embryonic stem cells with a single-cell biopsy technique that was not harmful to embryos.
The hope was that the new method could be used to overcome the ethical issues associated with current methods of stem cell extraction, in which embryos are destroyed, and increase the number of stem cell lines available for research.
It later was reported that every embryo actually was killed to extract their stem cells, but ACT, a biotechnology company that is applying stem cell technology to regenerative medicine, continues to tout the promise of extracting viable stem cell lines from early cells – including existing fertility tests that are used to check for disease or genetic deficits.
The method, while still unproven, had enough potential for the WiCell Research Institute, an arm of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, to enter into a tentative licensing agreement to distribute cell lines produced by the new technique. The agreement is contingent on federal recognition and funding of the lines.
It also gave Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Mark Green, who has opposed new federal funding for embryonic stem cell research that involves the destruction of embryos, an opportunity to fend off charges that he would bring the controversial research to a halt. Following the announcement, Green proposed allocating $25 million in state funds to WiCell for stem cell research that does not destroy embryos.
Svendsen, professor of anatomy and neurology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that even though embryos died in the attempt, ACT did prove something. “All they did was make stem cell lines from those single cells,” he noted, “and so they did actually prove exactly what they wanted to, and they did actually destroy embryos. And there was a bit of fudging of the data in terms of what they claimed to have done and what they really did.”
In publishing the paper when it did, Svendsen said ACT “went a little too fast” and should have done more work before publishing. The story behind the story, he said, is that ACT was pretty desperate for funds, the company was “going down pretty fast,” and it needed to put out a paper.
He said there is pressure to publish at a certain stage in the life cycle of a life science company, which is another reason why expanding federal funding for stem cell research would be helpful.
“That’s why, going back to the federal funding [for stem cell research], constant federal funding and good oversight is important for these studies to allow good stuff to come through,” Svendsen said. “Unless you allow companies to take the lead on this, you’re always going to run into this annual debate and business issue.”
Duncan and Lough, both professors in the department of cell biology, neurobiology, and anatomy at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and both conducting research on beating heart cells, fear that ACT will be lumped with South Korean researcher Hwang Woo Suk. Suk made headlines worldwide by claiming to have made an embryonic stem cell line from a cloned human embryo, but he later was discredited.
“I don’t think we should compare it to what happened in South Korea,” Duncan said. “It’s not at the same level. The science is fundamentally sound. It was just exaggerated, and clearly the potential for using this technique to establish cell lines without harming the embryo is intact.
“It’s likely [to happen],” Duncan added. “It hasn`t been done yet, but it’s likely we will see that in the very near future.”
Lough said flatly that there was no fraud in the ACT case. “You can’t compare this situation to Korea, but that’s what I’m afraid will happen,” he said. “I think the report in Nature was a breakthrough, and they proved the principle that you can take a single cell out of an embryo and use that cell to create a cell line.”
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