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Leading company pulls out of embryonic stem cell research

LOS ANGELES (BP) — In a surprising move, the company that launched the nation’s first government-approved embryonic stem cell trial is halting further research due to funding — a shift that pro-life leaders say confirms long-held doubts about the value of embryonic stem cells.

Geron, which launched the first FDA-approved embryonic stem cell trial in 2010 with much fanfare, said Nov. 14 it will stop funding its stem cell trials and move that money to cancer research, a move it said is necessary in the “current environment of capital scarcity and uncertain economic conditions.”

The shift is effective immediately.

“We intend to focus our resources on advancing” cancer drugs, Geron CEO John A. Scarlett said in a statement. Geron further said it is “seeking partners with the technical and financial resources” to “enable further development of its stem cell programs.”

The trial involved patients with spinal cord injuries. Geron is eliminating 66 full-time jobs, which is 38 percent of its workforce. At least two other companies are still involved in embryonic stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cell research — which requires destroying the embryo — has received plenty of attention in the scientific and political realms but has yet to produce any treatments or cures. By contrast, pro-lifers say, research using non-embryonic forms of stem cells — such as adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells — has been far more promising. Adult stem cells — found throughout the body — have produced 73 medical treatments, according to a tally by the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics. In induced pluripotent stem cells, researchers reprogram adult skin cells into stem cells that have virtually the identical properties of embryonic ones.

Pro-life ethicist Wesley J. Smith called the news involving Geron “huge.” Mailee Smith, an attorney with the pro-life Americans United for Life, said there is an obvious explanation to Geron’s decision.

“There simply is no money in research that yields no results,” Mailee Smith wrote at the Americans United for Life website. ” … Clearly, investors don’t want to put money into research that will not pay off.”

She expressed hope that more researchers will begin examining non-embryonic forms of research.

“We can hope it is the bell toll for unethical and unproductive embryo stem cell research,” Mailee Smith wrote. “But it will not have a devastating impact on the field of ‘stem cell research’ as a whole.”

Wesley Smith, writing on his FirstThings.org blog, said the story deserves far more mainstream media attention.

“The media has been utterly fawning in its promotion of embryonic stem cell research for more than ten years, and still often reports that it is the best hope for regenerative treatments, when that is clearly no longer true,” Smith wrote. “Indeed, the media has been so in the tank that it has often ignored far superior results from ethical approaches.”

The mainstream media, he said, should not take Geron at its word. He wondered if the move was due a European court’s October ruling that banned patents based on embryonic stem cell research. He also questioned if the human trial was showing disappointing results.

“If it is out of money, why aren’t venture capitalists more willing to invest more in the field if it is so promising?” Smith asked.

C. Ben Mitchell, professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., has said embryonic stem cell research is ethically wrong — even if it is successful.

“From our point of view, the experiment is morally tainted if the cells came from embryos who were destroyed for their biological parts,” he told Baptist Press. “Life-saving organs could be derived from killing innocent people, but that would be morally reprehensible. Follow the logic.”
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. For a Q&A on stem cell research, visit https://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=30032. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Michael Foust