November 15, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Follow the Stem Cell Money

A major clinical trial using embryonic stem cells was suddenly halted this week.  Meanwhile, trials with adult stem cells are steamrolling ahead.  Why the difference?

Geron calls it quits:  Not long ago, scientists were thrilled that Geron, a California-based company, was conducting the first U.S. clinical trial using embryonic stem cells (see 1/01/2011).  According to the BBC News, “Its submission to the US Food and Drug Administration to conduct the first trial in patients of human embryonic stem cells was the largest and most complex ever submitted.”  Suddenly it is getting out of the ESC business.  The turnaround after a “huge investment of time and resources” seems extraordinary, the article said.  Geron claims they made the decision for purely financial reasons.  In the “current environment of capital scarcity and uncertain economic conditions,” it has decided to focus on cancer treatments; “by stopping its stem cell programme it will cut its workforce by more than a third and save millions of dollars.”  The story was also carried by New Scientist and Medical Xpress.

Patient groups hoping for miracle cures from embryonic stem cells (ESC’s) were disgusted that the decision was made for financial reasons.  Competitors thought Geron’s clinical study was flawed.  But an ethicist was glad: “At long last after 10 years of unremitting hype, reality has caught up with embryonic stem cell claims,” Josephine Quintavalle from Comment on Reproductive Ethics said.  “If Geron is abandoning this project it is because it is simply not working, despite the millions of dollars and hot air that has been invested in the promotion of this research.”  Left begging was the question of whether ethically-clouded research should continue even if it did work and was profitable.

Update 11/18/2011: An article on New Scientist discussed the future of ESC research after Geron’s pullout.  Speaking of induced pluripotent stem cells as an alternative, the article said, “they were hailed by opponents of abortion and embryo destruction as an ethically acceptable alternative to hESCs.

Adult and Embryonic OverlapMedical Xpress reported  “Researchers grow pituitary glands from embryonic stem cells.”  This seems to announce a victory for ESC research, but it was actually a tie: “While these pituitary glands were created with embryonic stem cells, the researchers believe they can use the same process successfully with stem cells taken from adults and avoid possible ethical concerns with the use of embryonic stem cells.”  Such statements indicate that researchers and reporters have a twinge of conscience about using ESC’s.

Adult stem cells race ahead:  Meanwhile, Azellon Cell Therapeutics got a funding windfall for its clinical trials on a “Stem Cell Bandage” therapy, which uses a patient’s own stem cells from bone marrow to repair torn knees and other injuries.  Investors seem keen on putting their money where the real hope is.  According to Medical Xpress, a spokesperson for the investors’ group that delivered the latest funding said, “Azellon's stem cell bandage is targeted at a very large and growing market with a clear medical need and we are pleased to support the company as it moves into its Phase I/IIa trial.”

More adult stem cell successesScience Daily reported that in animal tests new heart cells increase by 30 percent after an infusion of adult stem cells (ASC) from the heart.  Humans are profiting from ASC trials, too.  New Scientist added that such infusions may help the heart pump more blood after a heart attack; this was demonstrated on 16 human heart-attack survivors.  Medical Xpress also reported on the successful trial.  And for those with brain cancer, there’s a Phase 1 trial underway using adult hematopoietic stem cells to treat glioblastoma, a difficult-to-treat malady, according to Medical Xpress.  It’s hard to keep up with all the adult stem cell news:

  • Medical Xpress:  “Results triple researchers’ projections with use of adult stem cells for heart failure.”
  • New Scientist: “Breast-milk stem cells may bypass ethical dilemmas.”
  • PhysOrg:  “Reprogramming stem cells to a more basic form results in more effective transplant, study shows.”
  • Medical Xpress:  “Stem cell approach primes immune system to fight cancer.”
  • PhysOrg:  “Research team shows skin stem cells run by circadian clock.”

If Quintavalle is right, ten years of hype about embryonic stem cells has not brought in the funds from investors.  The smart money seems to be on adult stem cells.

When smart money supports ethics, that’s great.  Financial decisions, however, do not usually track with the Golden Rule. We must never forget that grotesque experiments were done on humans in Nazi Germany with plenty of government funding.  Just because a clinical trial or project has a lot of money does not make it right.  Let us hope that the parade of adult stem cell successes will continue to deflate interest in cutting up human embryos.

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