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Notebook Medicine


Cell oversell

November was not a good month for embryonic stem-cell research

As editor Glenn McGee lamented on the American Journal of Bioethics weblog, November was not a good month for embryonic stem-cell research. An ethical breach tripped up the field's leading researcher while an embarrassed international scientific community watched. Meanwhile, research in ethical realms of science-those that do not depend on cloning and embryo destruction-continues to deliver groundbreaking therapies and offer further proof that you just don't have to kill embryos to save lives. Here are the latest developments:

•The ethical depths to which South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk sank turned out to be too low for one of his American collaborators. In mid-November, University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald Schatten publicly severed his ties with Mr. Hwang over Mr. Hwang's questionable methods of procuring human eggs for research.

In October, American, British and Korean scientists unveiled plans for the first World Stem Cell Hub in Seoul, Korea. Westerners would bring their expertise on diseases, and Easterners would provide fresh stem cells harvested from embryos they cloned in Korea, where the public and the government have fewer qualms about making and destroying embryos than their U.S. counterparts.

The cloning process requires the use of human eggs. Widely accepted scientific practice dictates that researchers should not pay or pressure women for egg donations. Since his break with Mr. Schatten, Mr. Hwang resigned his position as director of the World Stem Cell Hub and admitted to using eggs donated by women who worked under him, lying about the source of those eggs to the journal Nature, and accepting eggs from a hospital that paid women for egg donations. Mr. Hwang said the ethical breaches happened in his lab without his knowledge, but he kept them secret after learning about them.

Mr. Hwang's international reputation may have plummeted, but he remains one of South Korea's national heroes. A spokesperson for the government's health ministry told reporters that Mr. Hwang did nothing wrong. The scientist reportedly has an online fan club called "I Love HWS," whose members have offered their own eggs for research since Mr. Hwang's fall from grace.

Meanwhile, U.S. stem-cell researchers have returned to square one, asking the American public to fund domestic cloning and embryo research.

•Scientists from the San Francisco Bay area announced Nov. 15 they had engineered living blood vessels made from patients' own tissue and implanted them in two dialysis patients.

The team from Cytograft Tissue Engineering did not use any kind of stem cells, but rather coaxed small pieces of skin and vein from the back of a patient's hand to grow into layers of tissue used to construct blood vessels.

Doctors used the vessels as shunts in two patients undergoing dialysis. Typically, dialysis patients either have a blood vessel removed from another part of their body to serve as a shunt, or they use a synthetic one. The engineered vessels avoid complications of using extracted or artificial ones.

The vessels may also be used in cardiac bypass surgeries and to restore circulation in diabetics.

Embryonic stem-cell researchers have boasted their research could lead to similar tissue-engineering achievements to treat a variety of disorders from diabetes to spinal cord injuries. So far, few scientists have attempted to treat humans with cells or tissue from embryonic stem cells, and no one has done so successfully.

•A group of Thai scientists is touting its adult stem-cell treatment for heart disease in the United States. After treating several Americans who traveled to Thailand, the company presented its success rates at a recent American Heart Association meeting and will attend another U.S. conference later this month.

The company, TheraVitae, has found a way to derive millions of therapeutic stem cells from the adult stem cells in a half-pint of a patient's blood. When injected into the heart, the stem cells can improve blood flow, which can lead to relief from chest pain and increase a heart patient's ability to do physical activity.

The company does not claim that the treatment, called VesCell, cures heart disease. But it has improved the quality of life of people who cannot undergo cardiac bypass surgery or who still suffer after the surgery, according to its website. The company found that, after six months, 93 percent of patients reported an increased ability to perform physical exercise, 62 percent showed improvement in treadmill exercise, and 73 percent of patients showed improved blood flow in damaged areas of the heart.