World Stem Cell Summit to spotlight some under-the-radar research

World Stem Cell Summit to spotlight some under-the-radar research

Madison, Wis. – The entire ecosystem of the stem cell community will converge on Madison next week during the 2008 World Stem Cell Summit, where the unpredictable field of stem cell research will be celebrated.
Researchers, the biotech industry, pharmaceutical companies – even nonprofit organizations and grass roots citizens and patients – will be among the stakeholders and the roster of speakers and presenters. The event comes to Madison on the 10th anniversary of a key research breakthrough by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor James Thomson, who first isolated human embryonic stem cells.

Alta Charo

The role of the university and state in stem cell research will be recognized during the summit. “It’s good to remind people of the role that we played and the role that we continue to play in being the place where fundamental discoveries and groundbreaking research is being done,” said Alta Charo, a Warren P. Knowles professor of law and bioethics at UW-Madison.
One focus of the summit will be induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), the subject of programming on the summit’s first day, but a number of promising discoveries are flying under the radar. Several of them will be explored during the two-day event, set for Sept. 22 and 23 at the Alliant Energy Center.
In the past, there has been more interest in stem cell research that could lead to therapies. Yet hype about stem cell research often creates misimpressions that cures for the most debilitating diseases are right around the corner, when in fact its initial applications are more basic to public health.
Charo said the most likely initial applications will address things like creating test tube models of diseases to screen possible new drugs more quickly, cheaply, and safely, or the development of a safer human blood supply, or the study of genetic disease.
“A lot of those research applications don’t have the wow factor that a human transplant does, but the public needs to appreciate that the most important developments may take place in less obviously dramatic areas of research,” Charo said.
Stem cells and drug discovery
Bernard Siegel, executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute, the summit’s host organization, said embryonic stem cells are being viewed more as an important tool for drug discovery. Madison biotechnology companies have been trying, with some success, to establish partnerships with major pharmaceutical players, whose interest in drug discovery plays to a strength of the state’s biotechnology sector.
The summit will feature representatives from Baxter and Pfizer who will highlight their support for stem cell research and reflect the robust investments that are being made in the field. “I think that’s going to be one of the surprising themes that’s going to come out of this conference,” Siegel said.
Thomson and other scientists have developed the new iPS technique to produce clinical-quality stem cells from human skin cells, without destroying embryos. These iPS cells may have subdued some of the social controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research, but they have not undermined its importance.
Siegel said embryonic stem cells will continue to play an important role, especially as stem cell research continues to be a wedge issue in American politics. Siegel, who believes there is a lot of misinformation about embryonic stem cell research, said some of the most active proponents of iPS cells – including Thomson and other summit presenters – believe it is imperative that human embryonic stem cell research continues to advance.

Bernard Siegel

“Indeed, iPS cells would have never been discovered without human embryonic stem cells,” he said. “We have to compare these induced pluripotent cells with the gold standard, which still remains human embryonic stem cells.”
Charo, who will deliver a keynote on legal and ethical issues surrounding stem cell research, said neither the induced or the reprogrammed cells at Harvard are ready to do everything embryonic stem cells can do. The direct reporgramming work at Harvard and MIT has yet to succeed in humans, while the induced pluripotent cells still require a form of genetic manipulation that introduces genes that can cause tumors to grow. These cell lines are not ready for use in human transplant applications, although they may be useful for basic research that takes place in a laboratory dish.
“We’re still at the stages of comparison between the induced pluripotent stem cells and the embryonic stem cells to make sure that the induced pluripotent stem cells do, in fact, work as well as embryonic stem cells – that we can produce them as reliably, and we can maintain them in culture both in terms of length and quality,” Charo said. “So embryonic stem cells are viewed first as the gold standard against which all these newer kinds of cell lines are compared.”
Another summit theme will be the role of stem cell research in economic development. Nations, regions, and states are investing in stem cell research because they recognize that this is a burgeoning field, Siegel said, and the opportunities for global collaboration will attract researchers, investors, bureaucrats, and philanthropists to Madison.
”We’re at the ground floor of a potentially $500 billion industry over the next 20 years, and investments are being made, both public and private, to build this new industry,” he noted.
Stem cell politics
Public policy is likely to crop up, as both major presidential candidates favor expanded stem cell research. In Charo’s view, the key question is whether the new presidential administration will provide more funding for embryonic stem cell research. “That’s one big question that can’ t be resolved until we see how the election proceeds,” she said.
Siegel believes there is an improving climate. “The political climate for embryonic stem cell research is changing for the better, whether it’s Obama or McCain,” he said. “Both voted for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, and both have publicly committed to expanding federal funding for additional human embryonic stem cell lines.”
Siegel and Charo, however, noted that while McCain has been supportive of embryonic stem cell research, the Republican Party platform is not as accommodating. It calls for a ban on human cloning and for a ban on the creation of, or experimentation on human embryos for research purposes, and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s views are not consistent with McCain’s position.
If the federal government adopts a more aggressive role in funding embryonic stem cell research, it also will have more say over the rules that govern ethical research, for how embryo donors are recruited, and for what researchers can do with cell lines they create, Charo noted. That will take place against the backdrop of state laws and regulations that were created when individual states began funding the research, as well as national guidelines issued by the National Academy of Sciences.
Charo co-chaired the committee that helped develop those national guidelines. “Once the federal government issues its own regulations, they are going to have to be coordinated with all of these existing rules,” she said.