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By Dave Silver

August 2001                                                     

A stem cell is a special kind of cell that has a unique capacity to renew
itself and to give rise to specialized cell types.  They remain uncommitted
(undifferentiated) until it receives a signal to develop into a specialized
cell.  In 1998 scientists were able to isolate these cells called
pluripotent stem cells from early human embryos and grow them in a culture.
They have the potential of generating replacement cells for a broad array of
tissues and organs such as the heart, nervous system and pancreas.  Thus
this class of human stem cells will some day be capable of repairing or
replacing cells that are damaged or destroyed.  Stem cells do offer the
possibility of a revolutionary step forward in the ability of medical
science to prevent or cure diseases from Alzheimer’s to Diabetes.

Much research and verification from a variety of laboratories with varying
experimental conditions will be required before safe procedures can be
applied for remedies of human pathology. For instance we must know what the
mechanisms are that allow human embryonic stem and germ cells to proliferate
“in vitro” that is, in a culture dish, without differentiating. What are the
differences and similarities between embryonic and adult stem cells.  Many
other crucial questions need to be answered as well.

The Bush decision to allow a very limited research has profound
implications.  Harvard professor emerita of biology Ruth Hubbard had this to
say. “The most immediate problem with Bush’s stance is that by saying there
will be no federal funding for initial stem cell research, that means there
will be no federal regulation such as in Germany, Britain and other
countries.”  She cites the example of biotech companies beginning to produce
embryos for research that are not intended to relieve infertility.  Quentin
Young, National Coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program said
that “Bush’s statement on stem cell research is the latest in a series of
doublespeak pronouncements where the fig leaf of high morality—the sanctity
of life—poorly conceals his fundamental ethic: a commitment to corporate
exploitation and commodification of everything.” He goes on to say that “if
for profit models are favored to the exclusion of serious not-for profit
experimentation, which commenced with the patenting of elements in the human
genome and is now exploding, and if this trend is not reversed, it holds
dire consequences for the human experience.”

Appropriately in the Marketplace section the August 13th issue of the Wall
Street Journal, reflects the concerns of corporate America as they envision
at least a trillion dollar pie in these potentially life saving and life
enrichment medical technologies.  In “Scramble Over Stem Cells” one article
notes that “institutions and companies that developed the cell lines are
eager to start striking deals with U.S. researchers who would use federal
grants to study the cells.  What seems certain is that most of the entities
that control these cell lines will make them available to scientists at a
price:  a share of the rights to any usable discoveries to emerge from their
research.”  As Doug Melton, a stem cell researcher at Harvard cogently
observed that “their commercial interest may not coincide with the public
interest.”  In the same issue the article by David Hamilton called Biotech
Industry—Unfettered, but Possibly Unfulfilled, he says that Bush’s decision
gave the green light “for venture capitalists and entrepreneurs as well as
researchers.”  In the same article Hamilton notes that there are companies
“working behind closed doors” according to Health and Human Services
Secretary Tommy Thompson who are quietly pursuing this line of research.  Or
we can take the case of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, (WARF) an
affiliate of the University of Wisconsin, and the biotech Geron Corporation.
WARF owns the fundamental patent covering all embryonic stem cells.  WARF
supplies researchers a supply of stem cells for $5000, but only to those who
sign a detailed contract which includes a prohibition against turning the
cells into commercial products.

Meanwhile back in Menlo Park California the Geron Corporation says that they
have the exclusive commercial license to applications involving six
important cell types including heart and brain tissue. Last year Geron
joined the DNA powerhouse Celera Genomics Group to hunt for specific genes.
The article candidly concludes that stem cell transplants and related
treatments “are unlikely to win much favor with big pharmaceutical companies
that prefer to sell profitable, mass produced drugs that alleviate but don’t
cure underlying disease.”

While attorneys line up to make big bucks in the legal controversies that
will follow, who will be able to afford if and when safe stem cell
procedures become available to treat and perhaps cure serious diseases?  The
struggle to have access to this new and potentially revolutionary medical
treatment is part of the basic struggle for affordable quality health care
including necessary prescription drugs.  Only a broad based movement that
sees the connection to other vital issues of poverty, education and housing
among others and the common enemy of corporations, banks and insurance
companies will a viable Resistance be forged that will make available to the
masses of poor and working people the enormous potential benefits of stem
cell technology.


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