Major Papers Give Top Billing to Stem Cell Development; NY Times Still Finds Negative Angle

June 7th, 2007 12:01 PM

Color me pleasantly surprised, given the media's past treatment of the issue. The June 7 Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today all gave prominent play to news of a stem cell breakthrough that may make moot the embryonic stem cell ethical dilemma.

I don't have a hard copy of the LA Times, but I know the other papers featured the story on their front pages.

Of course, it appears that the New York Times couldn't let the good news go without a separate Debbie Downer article as counterbalance. Here's an excerpt, portion in bold is my emphasis:

While intriguing, a new approach for producing embryonic stem cells faces considerable hurdles before it can be used to develop medical treatments, executives from stem cell and other biotechnology companies said yesterday.

In particular, they said, the technique involves genetically altering cells, which could introduce new safety risks and make it harder to obtain regulatory approval.

“Once you muck around with the genome, all bets are off,” said Dr. Thomas B. Okarma, chief executive of Geron, a company trying to develop medical treatments from human embryonic stem cells. Dr. Okarma said getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration would become “enormously more complicated.”

In scientific papers published yesterday, scientists in the United States and Japan said that by inserting four genes into mouse skin cells, they could change those cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells.

The method does not involve the destruction of embryos, thereby circumventing ethical issues that have led to restrictions on federal financing in the field. That controversy has also deterred some pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

Joydeep Goswami, vice president for stem cells and regenerative medicine at Invitrogen, a company that sells tools for stem cell research, said the new technique could get more companies interested in stem cells.

Not only does it eliminate the ethical issues, he said, but it also might provide a way around stem cell patents held by the University of Wisconsin that some scientists and corporate executives say have hindered work in the field.

Still, an even bigger hurdle for investors has been the uncertainty of whether stem cells can be turned into lucrative medical treatments. Some experts say this might take a decade or more, too long for many investors to wait.

Of course, it's nice to see the New York Times worry about regulatory hurdles plaguing private business for once, but those regulatory challenges are not too far afield, I would imagine, from what the pharmaceutical industry at large faces.

In that vein, the "too long for many investors to wait" complaint seems odd given the 10+ years it takes from "molecule to medicine cabient" for major drug companies to develop pharmaceuticals. There's clearly lucrative private capital investment in those companies, and will be for some time.