Stem cell research: Breakthroughs and controversies

Stem cell research: Breakthroughs and controversies

Science correspondent

Embryonic stem cell research has generated much discussion worldwide despite the fact that it has not yet yielded concrete applications for human therapy. Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation two months ago authorizing $’70 million towards human embryonic stem cell research in New Jersey. This has opened up many doors to scientific breakthroughs and also stimulated much new discussion on the controversial topic. In response to the New Jersey legislation, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is presenting a program to address the latest breakthroughs and controversies in stem cell research. A Hadassah Young Leaders event, scheduled for March 15 at the Montclair Art Museum, will tackle the issues generated by this provocative technology.

Barry Schindler, a patent attorney, will speak about legal obstacles to stem cell research at a March 15 Hadassah program.

Barry Schindler, of Mountain Lakes, a patent attorney with Greenberg Traurig, LLP, which supports firms pursuing stem cell research, will speak about the legal barriers. He will be joined by Dr. Gary Friedman, a nephrologists, transplant specialist, and founding trustee of the New Jersey Stem Cell Research and Education Foundation, who will talk about therapeutic applications of the technology.

According to Schindler, it has been barely five years since the technology was patented and the science is still in its infancy, so scientists have only begun to realize the tremendous potential of the science of stem cell research. However, in addition to conquering scientific hurdles, scientists are also dealing with legal blockades that impede the progress of research on embryonic stem cells.

There are two major challenges: First, in ‘001 President Bush announced that the U.S. government would not provide support for research on any new embryonic stem cell lines. Only research using those lines of cells that had been generated before August ‘001 would be eligible for funding. Now it’s known that "the original lines are not useful. They’ve been so diluted and used that they are absolutely useless," said Schindler.

Second, the research scientists who developed the techniques were awarded patents that, Schindler said, "cover the cells themselves and a method for deriving them." Schindler explained, "These patents, which are now owned by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, apply to all current lines of embryonic stem cells. Scientists who wish to do research on such cells, even if they derive their own lines, must acquire a license from the Wisconsin foundation." For that reason the patents are called "blocking patents."

Human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998; from the start, the research triggered controversy, as the production of cells that could potentially be used to replace diseased body parts involved the destruction of human embryos. Some opponents of abortion are strongly opposed to the destruction of pre-implantation embryos that are used to make stem cells, and they have lobbied the government to block this research. On the other hand, many people who support embryonic stem cell research emphasize the life-saving potential of the technology, and have encouraged government leaders to provide resources for the research.

Although the federal government has tight restrictions on its support of stem cell research, at the state level there have been varied responses, some highly supportive of embryonic stem cell research. For instance, the state of California has committed $3 billion to stem cell research. It has completed the building of research centers and is beginning to award grants to researchers for embryonic stem cell research projects. The New Jersey legislation has committed $’70 million to support five stem cell and biomedical research centers in New Brunswick, Camden, at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, The Garden State Cancer Center in Belleville, and the Eli Katz Umbilical Cord Blood Program in Allendale.

"New Jersey may face similar issues that the state of California has been working through surrounding its groundbreaking Proposition 71 — $3 billion in funding for embryonic stem cell research that voters approved in ‘004," said Schindler. "Concern over these patents has popped up repeatedly as the field of embryonic stem cell research has grown." Schindler reported that the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation may demand payment based on its patents. "The foundation could ask the state of California for a percentage of profits from Proposition 71 funded research."

The legal barriers to embryonic stem cell research may be irrelevant to Israeli research groups, as the Wisconsin scientists who patented the pioneering techniques never filed for Israeli patents. In Israel they are also not hindered by the Bush administration’s ‘001 restrictions. Stem cell research is being aggressively pursued at the Hadassah Medical Center and at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, and the Technion in Haifa.

"Hadassah is doing really great stuff, and much of it is unencumbered by U.S. patent law," said Schindler. He reported that Hadassah has established a Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center at their Goldyne Savad Institute of Gene Therapy. The head of the institute, Dr. Benjamin Reubinoff has published extensively with his collaborators at the Hadassah University Medical Center on the development of stem cells that could repair damaged retinal cells of the eye. Schindler emphasized that Hadassah researchers can work in an environment that is not obstructed by the so-called "blocking patents."

The March 15 Hadassah event is co-chaired by Helaine Wohl and Lauren Roth. Wohl, a Mahwah resident, is the representative for the Northern New Jersey Region of Hadassah’s National Young Leaders Advisory Council. She became involved in leadership roles in Hadassah with the goal of attracting more young women to become involved in Hadassah projects and leadership roles. Wohl said that the event will also showcase Hadassah’s "Take a Stand" campaign. That program provides an opportunity to donate or sponsor equipment for a stem cell research laboratory at Hadassah Medical Center in Israel.

People of all ages are welcome to attend the March 15 program, which is scheduled to run from 7 to 9 p.m. The museum is at 3 South Mountain Ave., in Montclair. The event will include a dessert reception; the charge for the evening is $18 for Hadassah members and $’5 for non-members. For reservations or additional information about the program, call the Northern New Jersey Region of Hadassah, (973) 47′-1401.

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