Blind World Magazine

Stem cell science riddled with politics.

CBC News - Canada.
July 27, 2006.

Here's a strange riddle for you.

How is stem cell science in the United States coming to resemble religious Jews struggling to keep a kosher kitchen?

The context for the riddle was the news last week that President George W. Bush had vetoed a bill that would have expanded federal government support for stem cell research by allowing them to be harvested from a larger number of discarded embryos.

Stem cells have been touted as a kind of all-purpose biological fix, with the capacity to repair conditions ranging from Parkinson's to severed spinal cords to baldness.

"[The bill] crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs [to] respect, so I vetoed it," Bush proclaimed to reporters.

The next day California Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger thumbed his nose at Bush's morality, ordering $150 million immediately be given to a voter-approved stem cell research institute — an amount that in a single swoop close to doubled all the federal monies given to stem cell research since 2001.

This confusing politics leads to a real mess when it comes to actually doing stem cell science in the laboratory. I recently moderated a session of The International Society for Stem Cell Research's annual meeting and listened while Gordon Keller, who is at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York but is moving to Toronto, lamented the laboratory divisions this disagreement is forcing on him.

Effectively, if you got money from both the federal and state government — New York also has California-like relaxed stem cell regulations — you had to separate everything like a kosher kitchen. In it there is one set of plates, cutlery, cooking utensils for meat dishes and another for dairy ones.

In the lab, if the feds paid for this machine, then the protocol says you can't use it on New York-allowed stem cells lines. If someone is getting a grant from the National Institutes of Health, you can't let him ever do research with illegal stem cell lines.

Kowabonga, you might well say, them Americans, with their blue-red, Republican-Democrat, evangelical-agnostic splits are just loopy. Certainly, laboratory kosher is not something which is going to invade our peaceable kingdom with its national motto of "peace, order and good government."

Don't bet on it

Well, don't bet on it. If you are looking for a place to feel smug about the weird intersection of politics and science, it likely isn't stem cell research.

Consider the plight of Derek van der Kooy, a professor in the department of Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto. In 2000, he co-authored a paper identifying the specific stem cells that grew retinas.

This was exciting because there are a variety of incurable eye conditions in humans. Think of the dreaded macular degeneration which creates blind spots and blurred or distorted vision in upwards of 10 million people in North America over the age of 50.

The hope among researchers is that you can use stem cells to grow back damaged or lost retinal cells.

But before using human retinal stem cells in humans you first want to make sure they are safe. This is not entirely obvious. There is some evidence that retinal stem cells can produce a plethora of other cell types — that is not just retinal cells — and in so doing wreck havoc on the body. There has also been some suggestion — see the snappy cover story of the latest Scientific American — that stem cells kick start cancer in the body.

To provide assurance the procedure is safe, van der Kooy put forward the seemingly banal notion of putting the human stem cells in embryonic mice to see what happened as their eyes developed.

This mirrors the animal experiment first step you take when trying to bring a new drug to market. But he was rebuffed by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the funding agent for the project and for most university medical research in this country.

The problem, he was told, is that if the human retinal cells took hold in the mice embryos, the mice would by some definitions become "chimeras" — that is a cross between two species.

Clearly not just any two species, but a mostly-mouse mouse which was in some tiny, small, and seemingly unequivocally scary way — I search for the proper word — humanoid, humanesque, human-equivalent.

And thus making mice with retinal stem cells in them has become a no-no in Canada.

"The CIHR has guidelines that are in effect for all researchers having grants from CIHR," van der Kooy has written to me in an e-mail.

"The guidelines prevent…one from putting human stem cells in prenatal non-human animals…The concern would seem to be that the mouse with human neural tissue might cry out 'help.'"

What you can do is inject the retinal stem cells into the eyes of living mice.

Now I would guess that researchers could get money from a non-governmental body and create a race of tiny-bit-human chimeric mice. But you would have to then divide up your lab like the U.S. model. Adult stem cell altered mice on this side, chimeras on that side. Machines chimera kosherized here. Unkosher ones there.

It sounds like some comedy club, bizarre stand-up routine, but there is consequence to your choice. In that he can't create chimeras, van der Kooy has been forced to proceed very slowly in what might turn out to be eye-saving research. "Chimeras are the closest we can get before doing a clinical trial in humans. Unless we have some confidence that the adult human retinal stem cell transplants won't cause tumours or grow muscles in the eye, most would be hesitant to try this work in humans first," he says. What does this all mean? I can't help but think that in 100 years historians of science are going to view stem cells research politics as a central metaphor of our time. A metaphor that screams: When science becomes politicized science, it also becomes unkosher.

End of article.

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