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Off-target effects of bans on embryonic stem cell funding

stemcell1_full.jpgA sociological analysis of stem cell publications has generated data to back up an argument that stem-cell researchers have been making for years: hindering embryonic stem cell research also impedes technologies — such as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells — that don’t rely on embryos.

“It’s not fair to think of them as separate, independent technologies,” says Jason Owen-Smith, a sociologist at the University of Michigan and an author on the study. “The results suggest that we’re not going to be able to make a lot of sense of iPS cells without doing good work with embryonic stem cells alongside them.”

An ongoing lawsuit over the legality of US federal funding for embryonic stem cell research brought the issue to the fore last year. Although a preliminary injunction was recently lifted (see ‘US stem-cell funding ban overturned’) by a higher court, the case is awaiting a decision from the US District Court for the District of Columbia which could still rule against the funding. Meanwhile, the lawsuit may have already had an off-target effect by limiting research using a technology that derives embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos (see ‘Hidden toll of embryo ethics war’).


In an analysis published today in Cell, Owen-Smith and his colleagues found that a growing proportion of papers involving iPS cells also report data from embryonic stem cells. In 2008, 20% of iPS cell papers used both technologies. By 2010, that fraction had swelled to 62%.

The researchers also found that the senior authors who are most active in the field of iPS cells overwhelmingly tended to run labs that also work with embryonic stem cells. “It’s not the case that there is a whole new crop of folks who are only interested in iPS cells,” says Owens-Smith.

Meanwhile, a survey of 118 attendees at the International Society for Stem Cell Research annual meeting last year confirmed that researchers made the choice of which cells to use based on scientific utility, emphasizing the co-dependent relationship between the two technologies. Owen-Smith notes that recent concerns about differences between the two types of cells (see ‘Stem cells: The growing pains of pluripotency’) has only intensified the need for comparative research.

Image: stem cell cultures, NIH

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    Adam said:

    First up thanks for the article. Stem cell research is such a sticky topic. On the one hand some people argue that we’re messing with the fundamental codes of nature, in effect playing God and we don’t know what future outcomes may be. On the other hand the benefits to many people like christopher reeve and michale j, fox and advances in medicine are there too.

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