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It is now a decade since human embryonic stem cells were discovered, and since the UK legislated to facilitate cloning human embryos for research. Since then, barely a week has passed without new stem cell stories appearing. Last November, it was widely reported that the world's "first tailor-made replacement organ", a successfully transplanted trachea produced from stem cells, finally proved the enormous potential of embryonic stem cells. The Guardian trumpeted this as "a tribute in particular to the UK regulatory framework that enabled stem cell research to make such rapid strides", concluding that "the election of Barack Obama, committed to removing the block on federal funding for most stem cell research in the US, can only speed the process." So is this, as many end-of-year commentaries implied, game, set and match to the embryo research lobby, and defeat for those advocating stem cell science that does not involve destroying human embryos?

A moment's examination shows precisely the opposite. The truth is that the airway transplant was achieved with exclusively adult stem cells, while the Obama and UK regulation references relate exclusively to embryonic stem cells. Such conflation of unrelated stem cell developments - citing adult stem cell advances to promote embryonic stem cell research - is not rare. Gordon Brown, trying to persuade MPs to support animal-human hybrid embryo research, wrote: "With adult stem cells already being used as treatments for conditions including leukaemia, severe combined immunodeficiency, and heart disease, scientists are already close to the breakthroughs that will allow embryonic stem cells to be used to treat a much wider range of conditions."

In fact, as the advantages of other forms of stem-cell research become increasingly obvious, there is every reason to predict that the use of human embryos as a source of stem cells will decline substantially this year.

It is little realised but invariably true that every media stem cell story involving patients concerns adult cells; and every story about embryonic stem cells is about their potential, or animal experiments - not patients. Embryonic stem cells remain far too dangerous for clinical testing. Cross-infection and rejection are potential problems, but the biggest hazard is that embryonic stem cells form tumours. Biologically, they have much in common with cancer stem cells.

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February 9th, 2009
1:02 AM
Dear Mr Kaufman, would Stanford be reliable enough as a source for hESC? Or is Wikipedia the only scientific source you acknowledge? Will I have to assume that your name is made up?

Sir Desmond Kaufman
February 5th, 2009
11:02 PM
To infinity and beyond indeed. I don't know what hESC is and i got no hits on Wikipedia, so I'll have to assume that you're making it up. I'm guessing that ESC stands for embryonic stem cell, but what is the "h" for? No offence Thomas Friedl, but your name sounds made up.

Thomas Friedl
February 4th, 2009
11:02 PM
I am writing to you from Germany. What Neil Scolding is saying finds some affirmation in what recently happened over here. We just had a "stem cell war" which started in late 2006 when the German research foundation DFG published a paper calling for liberalisation of the Stem Cell Act. The Stem Cell Act stipulates that only embryonic stem cells (hESC) derived from human embryos before a certain cut-off date are eligible for importation for "high-ranking" research projects approved of by a special hESC ethics committee and in pursuance of a license issued by the Robert Koch Institute. The cut-off date used to be January 1, 2002. Derivation of hESC from human embryos is banned by our Embryo Protection Act, anyway. During the stem cell debate, more recently derived hESC have been depicted as absolutely indispensable by the German hESC research community. Finally, after much debate, in April 2008, the law was changed and the cut-off date was shifted to May 1, 2007, now allowing importation of many, many more recently established hESC. The new law took effect on August 21, 2008. But what happened? Quite contrary to what you might expect, there was no rush. Only four importation licenses have been granted since then. Most astonishingly, all of them relate to "old" NIH-registered hESC lines (established well before January 1, 2002) which had been readily eligible before as well. What can we conclude from this? Why are German hESC researchers not taking advantage of the liberalised law? Neil Scolding may be quite right: the embryonic stem cell wars appear to be over. This seems to be true for Germany, and probably beyond.

Prof David Alber Jones
February 4th, 2009
10:02 AM
Thank you for this helpful presentation of where we are with stem cell research. The public has been persuded to back embryonic stem cell research just as scientists are moving on to adult stem cells and iPS cells. How wonderfully ironic. Hopefully we now move beyond the culture wars and get on with science that is both ethical and effective.

Sir Desmond Kaufman
February 3rd, 2009
3:02 AM
I am the representative from the Stem Cell Awesomeness Group in Brunswick, Maine. It is a very official group that I set up on facebook. I think that this article is very good for those people who do not have to write a 5+ page paper and prepare a debate, which will be moderated by a waxy-haired, tie wearing, animal loving, pen twirling supreme member of the teacher's guild. A person who did have to write a 5+ page paper and prepare a debate on stem-cell research, then this article would prove completely useless. Also, the author, Neil Scolding, should change his last name to something like "Down".

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