Well, I had a very busy weekend, but the stem cell world did not. No new research news—there rarely is on weekends, and only a little political news in the US. Italy is still in a furor about a minister’s decision not to impose Italian law on the EU and his withdrawal of the country’s signature from a document condemning embryonic stem cell research, but it’s not actually new news. And I am about the last person qualified to speak on Italian politics, I know nothing.
So, moving on, only two real stories of note over the weekend. The first is about embryonic stem cells and campaign issues in New Jersey; NorthJersey.com reports that Senator Robert Menendez, who is running for re-election, said that the Republican leadership in the US Senate has blocked his bill on embryonic stem cell research. His mother has Alzheimer’s disease. He criticized his Republican opponent for voting against funding for stem cell research three times in one year in the state Senate; the opponent, Tom Kean, says that he supports embryonic stem cell research and voted against the bills because they were for facilities, which he feel the state has enough of, and not for actual research. There’s no discussion in the article of the impact of federal funding limitations upon research space (e.g. work with non-eligible lines can’t be done in labs supported with federal funding) so it’s unclear if Kean is unaware of the issue, is aware but is ignoring it, or believes that it is not an issue with NJ’s current research facilities.
In other stories, MSNBC ran an article from the East Bay Business Times about the current status of the CIRM and Prop. 71. It doesn’t really report anything new to anyone who has been following what’s happening in California, but it is a nice summary of the overall situation if you are looking for that.
One other story that might be of interest to some readers is a patient story, about a brain-damaged 15 year old boy who has received injections of umbilical-cord derived stem cells in China. The Cape Cod Times reports that the parents see some improvement since the treatment, and that from their point of view any improvement, even if not statistically measurable, matters. An American scientist quoted said that there is no evidence that stem cells work in treating brain damage even in an animal model.
As is my usual caution, I want to see how he is doing in six month or a year. Severe brain damage is the sort of situation where I find myself wondering if the risks of experimental treatment outweigh the potential benefits or not. I am imaging the risk of receiving umbilical cord stem cells is more financial than physical—the likeliest outcome seems to me that the cells don’t survive and it’s money down the drain. The worst possible outcome would probably be a brain or spinal cord tumor as a result of some cells surviving and mutating. In between might be increased chronic pain. And maybe a slight increase in functioning matters more than these possible adverse outcomes. It is an important part of human being that we take risks for people we love, and I am not going to criticize this family for doing that, but others who are considering it need to think very carefully about the risks in their own situation and how they compare to the potential benefits.