Leading stem cell experts from the International Society of Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) and the US National Academy of Sciences have cautioned that it would be detrimentally premature to abandon embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research in favour of recent breakthrough techniques that have succeeded in being able to coax adult stem cells to behave like ES cells. The scientists welcome the recent discoveries of alternative sources and uses of stem cells but implore the public that all avenues of stem cell research, particularly embryonic, must continue in order to best expedite development of potential medical therapies.
ES cells are valued for their 'pluripotent' capability which allows them to develop into any cell type, but many oppose research with human ES cells because it involves embryo destruction. Since 2007, scientists have developed techniques to allow researchers to 're-programme' adult stem cells to become pluripotent - creating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) as an alternative to ES cells. Opponents such as US President Bush cite these developments as reasons to cease ES cell research and focus efforts on other types of stem cell.
Last week the ISSCR - representing 2,600 leading stem cell researchers - concluded that 'there is no question that embryonic and all adult forms of stem cell research must continue if we are to realize the full promise of regenerative medicine.' The statement was in direct response to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute's study from the previous week which successfully transformed non-insulin producing cells in the pancreas of mice into insulin-producing cells. Dr Douglas Melton, who headed the Harvard study and is co-director of the institute agreed: 'We would not be where we are today without having worked with human embryonic stem cells. These unique cells provide a window into human development and disease development that is needed if we are to make further progress in understanding and treating chronic diseases.' The ISSCR has also written a letter of support for the November 2008 US Michigan state ballot initiative to fund ES cell research.
Similarly, an advisory committee for the US National Academy of Sciences last week published revised guidelines for human ES cell research that echoed the ISSCR's conclusion and devised policies to regulate these new sources of stem cells particularly to prevent the 'breeding' of admixed human-animal embryos when these cell lines are incorporated into animal DNA. 'At this time it is still undetermined which stem cell types will prove the most useful for regenerative medicine, as most likely each will have some utility.' The report concluded that the 'need for human embryonic stem cells still exists despite the availability of new cell sources'.
The advisory board was jointly established by the Academies' National Research Council and Institute of Medicine to monitor and review scientific advances and accordingly reform the guidelines. These guidelines, initially issued in 2005 and amended in 2007, provide a suggested national ethical standard in absence of US federal regulation in this field. The report strongly suggested that institutions 'as a good management practice' implement ES cell research oversight (ESCRO) committees to audit research and ensure it is conducted on ethically-sourced cell lines, allowing the findings and research grant decisions to be public. Additionally, the new guidelines clarify that expedited reviews should be done for research with cells that do not create new lines but uses previously derived ES cell lines.
The amended guidelines also clarify the separate issue that 'direct expenses' reimbursed to women donating eggs for stem cell research may include costs for travel, housing, child care, medical care, health insurance and lost wages. The report emphasised that reimbursement for lost wages should leave donors neither better nor worse off financially.