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The Final Frontier 

Depending on whom you ask, stem-cell research is either a medical godsend or further proof that God is dead.

Thursday, Jan 30 2003
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Page 8 of 9

It is interesting to note that there is no Bush administration or religious-right opposition to the in-vitro fertilization process, despite the fact that in the normal course of in vitro, multitudes of embryos are destroyed. During in vitro, ova that have been extracted from a woman’s body are fertilized in a petri dish. On average, 20 or so embryos are created, but only one is implanted. The rest are temporarily frozen and then eventually discarded. This means that while the administration and the religious right are opposed to using those ill-fated embryos for stem-cell research, they are more than happy to turn a blind eye to their destruction in the name of pregnancy. This is because their anti-abortion legal strategies call for defining life ever earlier and ever more clinically -- as early and clinically as a dish in a refrigerator (talk about weird science). Also, they do not wish to confront sterile parents or hamper a multimillion-dollar industry.

So sure, it‘s a tad dramatic to say that what followed SB 253 is a high-stakes poker game with states’ rights, Bush‘s second term, abortion legality, the biotech industry and medical science as major players. In less dramatic language, what’s happened in California is that the two key issues driving the Republican bus have come into head-on conflict with each other, and it‘s because Democrats have forced the issue by playing the states’-rights card.

Just before Davis signed Ortiz‘s bill into law, Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel, donated $5 million to UCSF for a stem-cell biology program. Because of Bush’s restrictions, anyone wanting to do stem-cell research requires facilities that are completely unattached to anything receiving National Institutes of Health dollars -- thus separate buildings, labs, equipment and such must be constructed. The $5 million won‘t pay for much of that, but it was the first major private donation and a good start.

In Irv Weissman’s home, on the evening of December 11, a small dinner party was held to celebrate the next step -- that being Stanford‘s announcement a day earlier that it plans to capitalize on $12 million of anonymously donated seed money and build a $120 million Institute for CancerStem Cell Biology and Medicine headed up by Weissman. Building on his previous research with blood-forming stem cells, the Stanford institute will initially turn its attention to discovering the stem cells that become the other major organs of the body -- that way, if these organs become cancerous, they’ll have new ways to fight the disease.

Weissman does not look like a man in celebration. His movements are careful, his brow creased. He wears a chef‘s apron and stands at the stove, studying the goose he’s been busy cooking.

Around the dinner table sits a hungry crew. Weissman‘s sister Lauren, once a Hollywood producer with five major films to her credit and now the executive director of CuresNow, is there. As is Lee Hood, another top scientist and the man who invented the DNA sorter that facilitated the sequencing of the human genome; and Ann Tsukamoto, a scientist with StemCells Inc.

Weissman maintains a robust wine cellar, and there are a number of prestigious bottles sitting unopened on the counter and a number sitting opened on the table. In between gobs of goose and glasses of grape, Weissman explains the focus of Stanford’s new research institute.

”It‘s not only new ways to fight the disease,“ he says. ”That’s only the first step. We also know that there are cancer-forming stem cells. If we can isolate these, we can get to the very root of every type of cancer. This would give us new, biologically specific targets for drugs. And because the institute is in this state, California will be the first place these therapies will come out. Our biotech companies will produce them, and Californians will get the first crack at these treatments.“

Even this is only the tip of the iceberg. The institute plans to improve the efficiency of SCNT, and once that‘s done they can begin growing diseases from scratch -- which means they’ll develop a fundamental understanding of how the body gets sick. So, when the Bush administration says it opposes all forms of cloning, it is, in effect, saying it opposes the best bet yet for curing cancer.

As expected, Stanford‘s announcement sparked a firestorm. All of the top papers and top news shows reported the story, but not one bothered to explain the tie-in between the stem cells and cancer. Instead the words human cloning got heavy play. The Associated Press was the first to cover the story, and its article began: ”Stanford has said its new cancer institute will conduct stem-cell research using nuclear-transfer techniques -- work that many consider to be cloning of human cells.“ ABC News followed suit: ”The president believes that the creation and destruction of embryos for the purpose of research or reproduction is morally wrong. He is against cloning of any kind and feels there are other biomedical-research avenues.“

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