U.S. losing the lead in Stem Cell Research
December 1 , 2005 South Korea's World Stem Cell Hub could become the leading center for stem cell and therapeutic cloning research, because of the chilling effect U.S. policy has had on stem cell research, according to Dr. Robert Lanza, Vice President for Medical & Scientific Development of Advanced Cell Technology, and Professor Ronald Green, Director of Dartmouth's Ethics Institute and chair of Advanced Cell Technology's Ethics Advisory Board, writing in the November 24th issue of the scientific journal Nature. "It reflects how far the United States has fallen behind its competitors in this pivotal area and how much the lack of federal leadership has handicapped US efforts," allege Lanza and Green.
The current administration's restrictive policy also impacted Advanced Cell Technology's own promising program to produce human embryos through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), Lanza and Green state. "We believe the South Koreans are winning the race, because "in our view (the current administration's) restrictive policy on funding stem cell research was a major factor." They add, that the Administration "repeatedly spoke out in support of legislation in Congress that would ban all therapeutic cloning research."
Advanced Cell Technology's own human SCNT program was initiated in 2000, with strong ethical guidelines provided by the company's Ethics Advisory Board to assist researchers in this pioneering egg donor program.
"Apart from the egos involved here," said Green, "the stakes for this research are important. Although the South Korean team deserves every credit for their accomplishments, the current absence of a strong U.S. competitor in this research narrows the range of directions likely to be explored."
"By driving research out of this country, (U.S. government) policies have also made it difficult to develop and apply rigorous ethical oversight for this research," Green added.
After Advanced Cell Technology scientists created the first early (4-6 cell stage) cloned human embryos in 2001, they were able to quickly generate more advanced stem-cell-competent stage embryos. In the last SCNT experiments in 2003, the company had 16 eggs, of which 13 (81%) developed into healthy-looking 8-16 cell morula, which have the capacity to generate stem cells in both animals and humans.
Advanced Cell Technology carried out control experiments involving just activation. Although healthy looking in appearance, both the SCNT embryos and parthenote controls failed to develop into blastocysts, because the wrong culture media were being used. When the company's scientists changed the media and repeated the parthenote controls the next time, 12 of 14 (86%) 8-16 cell stage morula went on to develop into blastocysts.
"As early as 2002 and 2003," Lanza said, "the Advanced Cell Technology research team had the science worked out and simply needed to repeat the experiment using the right media in order to obtain stem cells. Unfortunately, these were the last SCNT experiments performed in the Unite States."
Lanza and Green conclude by noting that the company was not a special case. "Indeed, the stem-cell area as a whole has continued to encounter difficulties in garnering sufficient financial support."
Advanced Cell Technology is a biotechnology company applying stem cell technology in the emerging field of regenerative medicine. The company is currently headquartered in Worcester, Massachusetts.