Friday, 22 January 2010

Adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research

A new adult stem cell treatment developed in the UK has restored sight to several patients in a trial. Researchers at the North East England Stem Cell Institute regrew the outside membrane of damaged corneas from stem cells taken from a healthy eye. All of them were suffering from limbal stem cell deficiency, a painful eye disease that prevents the cornea from renewing itself. 
Dr Francisco Figueiredo, who co-led the project, told the London Telegraph: "Corneal cloudiness has been estimated to cause blindness in eight million people worldwide each year. The stem cell treatment option is aimed at total cure rather than symptom relief only. This new treatment will alleviate patient suffering and remove the need for long term multiple medications as well as returning the patient to functional and social independence."
A larger trial with a longer follow-up will be carried out to determine whether the treatment is reliable, safe and effective in the long term. 

Is enthusiasm waning for embryonic stem cell research?
From the public's point of view, the shine seems to be wearing off embryonic stem cell research as the months stretch on without miracle cures. An editorial in the financial newspaper Investor's Business Daily spoke recently of the "failure" of Proposition 71, the California referendum which authorised the creation of a US$3 billion stem cell research centre. But, says the editorial, embryonic stem cells have failed to deliver. "When funding was needed, the phrase 'embryonic stem cells' was used. When actual progress was discussed, the word 'embryonic' was dropped because [embryonic stem cell research] never got out of the lab."
Even the lurid pages of London's premier tabloid, the Daily Mail, are sceptical. A recent feature focused on desperate parents taking children to China for shady stem cell treatment. The newspaper reminds its readers: "The fact is that people's expectations about stem cells are unrealistically high, warns the International Society for Stem Cell Research, a leading body of experts. Indeed, the conventional view is that it will be years, perhaps even decades, before stem cell therapy is sufficiently understood and safe and effective enough to use widely."
Since 2001 opposing camps in the US, the UK, Australia and Europe have been debating, often heatedly, the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. Is the air hissing out of the balloon?