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Britain Joins the Slog Through Stem Cell Vineyards

When I was a graduate student, a professor was assigned to review my teaching. Apparently it went well because he got so excited by the discussion that he broke into a mini-lecture about how much longer it takes to get a bit of science done than a work of art. He referred to the difficulties of the former as “slogging,” a term he knew from his days as a student at Oxford that had no meaning to my students in the Bronx. (In case you’re puzzled as well, a slog is a persevering plod.)

Some might argue about the example and his choice of comparison (as Hippocrates said, “life is short but the art is long”). Still, there is no doubt that biology is a hard slog, and getting some lab science into the world of medical treatment is harder still. SP readers know we’ve been intensely following work on embryonic stem cells, including the period in late 2007 when the opposition declared there was no longer a need for this source of pluripotent cells because adult cells had been reprogrammed to resemble those from an embryo.

But the fact is that the jury is very much still out on whether those reprogrammed cells are similar enough to embryonic cells to be substitutes in the lab. Determining whether they are similar to embryonic stem cells is precisely the reason that embryonic stem cell lines are still needed as points of comparison. Even more uncertain is whether it will ever be safe to put them into patients. In fairness, there are also grave safety issues with the derivatives of embryonic stem cells. In my new book, The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, I review the desultory stem cell debate in the context of our growing tensions about the politics of biology.

The embryonic stem cell research slog hasn’t been made any easier by the legal and political issues that have come up in the last decade, though it appears that the recent U.S. case challenging NIH grants has been resolved in favor of the feds’ continued funding. On the private industry side, a company called Geron received FDA approval to clinical trial now underway for spinal cord injury, the first known attempt to use a product of human embryonic stem cells to address a disease in a human being. That study is now underway.

The second clinical trial involving human embryonic stem cells addresses a disease of the eye, Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy. Two patient-subjects have received that treatment in the United States, and last week Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. announced it has received permission from British authorities to conduct the study there, as well.

This grinding progress attests to the fact that, unlike politics, there’s no room for triumphalism in biology; it’s a hard slog. Meanwhile, the stem cell controversy has shown beyond dispute that punditry is easy, especially the type that doesn’t require evidence.

So we may welcome the Brits to the slogging plod of human embryonic stem cell research. They should know. It’s their language.

Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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