October 21, 2011

Stem Cells: Two Updates

It seems every time I review the latest medical developments online, there's something new about stem cells. Here are two of the most recent items; each carries its own surprise. Did the Vatican really fund stem cell research?

European Court Bans Stem Cell Patents
On Tuesday, October 18, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg banned patents on stem cell inventions derived from human embryos. Reaction – especially in Europe – has been intense.

The EJC decision doesn’t forbid stem cell research (or the associated destruction of embryos); instead, it removes the commercial incentive for companies to fund stem cell research in Europe.

Critics of the ruling fear that practical treatments from stem cell technologies -- including therapies for Parkinson's, blindness, spinal injuries, and heart disease -- may go undeveloped, because investors will be unwilling to take risks if intellectual property cannot be protected.

The big loser is commercial development in Europe. Companies in the U.S. and elsewhere will likely gain from this ruling, since patents outside of Europe can still be obtained and intellectual property therefore protected. European researchers can still obtain patents for their work, just not in their native continent.

Interestingly, it was the environmental group Greenpeace -- not the church or an organization with a conservative social agenda -- that challenged University of Bonn researcher Oliver Bruestle's 1997 patent on a technique he'd developed to turn embryonic stem cells into nerve cells. Greenpeace argued that the patent allowed for the exploitation of human embryos... and not that the procedure required the destruction of embryos. Greenpeace lawyers expressed concern about the commercialization of the human body, and suggested that patents on plants and animals -- other living organisms, like embryos -- might lead to untenable monopolies, for instance, on food production. The ECJ upheld the challenge, and Bruestle now has no legal recourse.
As expected, church officials applauded the ruling. The Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community called the decision "a milestone in the protection of human life in EU legislation." The Anscombe Bioethics Centre, a Roman Catholic institute in the UK, called it “a triumph of ethical standards over commercial interest.”

Because this ruling has been such a hot topic these past few days... and because the church has again put its opposition to embryonic stem cell research into clear focus... I was intrigued to see the following
headline in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times:

"Vatican Signs Deal to Collaborate on Adult Stem Research "
Yes, you read the headline correctly. Dr. Robin Smith, CEO of New York-based biopharmaceutical company NeoStem, announced the $1-million compact her company has signed with the Vatican to collaborate on adult stem cell education and research.

What's in it for NeoStem? Smith said the deal is like getting "the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" for her company, whose stock price has recently fallen sharply.

What's in it for the Vatican? The partnership enables the church to take a "constructive role" in this area of developing medical research. It also lets the church clarify its position on the "other" type of research it staunchly opposes: with embryonic -- not adult -- stem cells. Here's the difference:
  • Adult stem cells are harvested and then re-implanted into the same patient. Bone marrow transplants, for instance, are a type of adult stem cell therapy commonly used to treat cancer.
  • Embryonic stem cells -- which have the ability to become any type of cell in the body, thereby giving them enormous potential in repairing and regenerating damaged organs and tissue -- are harvested from 80- to 100-cell embryos (the size of a pinhead) typically left over from fertility treatments, never implanted into a woman's body, and donated to research. Extracting these stem cells kills the embryos, the key reason church groups and others oppose the process, which they see as tantamount to abortion. On the other hand, supporters of the technology's promise argue that it's better to use these cells to save lives, than to simply discard them.
The Vatican is not investing in NeoStem, but is collaborating with NeoStem's non-profit arm, the Stem for Life Foundation. The unlikely partners will sponsor a November conference in Rome, which will attract adult stem cell experts from around the world. In addition to sponsoring the conference, the church will support fundraising, educational campaigns, and research.

What's next? Stay tuned.

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