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ScienceNostalgia101

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

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This issue has long been an obsession of mine, since before I even really had an accurate understanding of what it was. I used to think embryonic stem cells came from aborted fetuses; yet I get angry when hearing others spread the exact same myth. (For the record, for anyone reading, they come from in vitro fertilizations or from cloned embryos.) To avoid falling into the same sort of trap as before, I want to make sure I know what I'm talking about amidst an issue left murky by controversy.

 

A. One popular talking point against embryonic stem cell research is that because other stem cells have (supposedly) gotten better results. Firstly, aren't they supposed to be useful for different purposes than other stem cells are? Secondly, how much time and/or money has been poured into research with embryonic stem cells vs. any other type of stem cells?

 

B. Another is that you can supposedly "program" non-embryonic stem cells to act like embryonic ones. I heard a lot about this about a decade or so ago when Obama was lifting funding limits on this research, but it hasn't been in the mainstream discussion much since. Have any of you heard any updates on the efficacy of this one?

 

C. There is also discussion on the tradeoff between public and private sector embryonic stem cell research. The supposed benefit of the latter is that the taxpayers who object to it can wash their hands of direct culpability for it, by the fact that it isn't their money going toward it. The tradeoff, however, is that any private company that profits more from the disease than they would from a cure has a perverse incentive not to cure that disease. As well, any cure they do release, they can patent and exorbitantly overcharge for. Critics of public funding for embryonic stem cell research claim that private companies would be involved in this research anyway. Is this true? If so, why does the government give private companies public tax dollars, and why can't they just cut out the middleman and do the research themselves?

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On 1/4/2020 at 3:15 PM, ScienceNostalgia101 said:

A. One popular talking point against embryonic stem cell research is that because other stem cells have (supposedly) gotten better results. Firstly, aren't they supposed to be useful for different purposes than other stem cells are? Secondly, how much time and/or money has been poured into research with embryonic stem cells vs. any other type of stem cells?

A) It depends on the type of research. As a whole embryonic stem cells are still more popular than induced pluripotent stem cells, mostly because we still compare the latter to the former (as these represent what happens "naturally"). Especially when it comes to the development of stem cell-related therapies, folks still stick with the less manpulated embryonic version. However, to understand gene regulation and differentiation induced stem cells are used more frequently. A short version could be that clinical applications are still sticking with embryonic, whereas basic research uses a mix of both types. Funding is difficult to assess as individual groups are funded which may use one or the other (or both) as appropriate for the research question. There is no general pot only for embryonic or induced stem cells AFAIK.

B) These are the aforementioned induced stem cells, i.e. other cell types that are reverted to a pluripotent form. They were established roughly in the mid-2000s and as mentioned have found various uses without the ethical baggage. However, they have not outpaced embryonic stem cell research in terms of research output (again, AFAIK). Note that for certain types of basic research non-human embryonic stem cells (e.g. mice or rats) are frequently used. Embryonic stem cells are more important when we look at things specific to humans (e.g. diseases and therapies).

C) Most of the discovery-type research is still conducted in the public sector. Private sectors are usually involved when there is a direct path to commercialization. But even then quite a lot in the stem cell therapy field (because much is still experimental). Most trials and preclinicals that I am aware of are conducted by universities or start-up grown from them. So they may be partially private but were grown from public funding.  That being said internationally there are quite a few private stem cell research labs, but many maintain relationship with public funded researchers. So generally there are not necessarily clean lines between private and public funded research. A fudamental question of course is that the private sector may operate without ethical safeguards as implemented in the public sector. For example NIH has strict guidelines to adhere to when being funded by them whereas it is unclear what rules the private sectors have to adhere during the research phase (trials are a different, more strictly regulated matter). However, the private sector is generally also allowed to apply for public funding (depending on mechanism they may have to have a collaborator from an university, but that is not always the case) where they would basically fall under the same rules as a public entity. Even so, some private clinics have reportedly conducted experimental stem cell treatments without approval. 

 

 

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