All Eyes on First Clinical Stem-Cell Trial

It's just a preliminary step, but could lead to big things

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On Friday, an unnamed patient at Atlanta's Shepherd Center became the first person to be injected with embryonic stem cells in a federally approved clinical trial. Between eight and 10 patients will receive this treatment overall, in a measure that ultimately hopes to test whether embryonic stem cells can be used to help rehabilitate spinal cord injuries. The trial, sponsored by the California biotech company Geron, is a pathbreaking event for the contentious field of stem-cell research, and is being watched closely on all sides. Here are some of the initial reactions:

  • Don't Expect Fireworks Just Yet  "Yes, it's a milestone," writes Eliza Strickland at Discover. "But if all goes well with the trial... there won't be any dramatic results--the trial is simply intended to test the treatment's safety, and patients will receive very low doses of the stem cell concoction." Strickland adds that "even if Geron's trial passes the safety test with flying colors, no one can predict how much the treatment may help humans."

  • Great News for Domestic Companies  An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle expresses relief that the U.S. made it to the trial stage before another country could. Geron's trial is happening "with American patients and within American borders," the piece reads. "It's an encouraging sign, and it means there's a good chance that the industry will continue to grow here."

  • Feel Morally Conflicted? You Shouldn't  Jay Bookman, writing in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says that "the creation of human embryos for the purpose of research crosses a dangerous line," but adds that that's not what's happening here. "Almost all stem-cell lines used in research, including those injected in the Shepherd patient, are derived from donated embryos left over from in vitro fertility treatment," Bookman writes. "In other words, they did not involve 'the creation of life for the purpose of destroying it.'" He adds:

I think it would be immoral and inhumane not to pursue that line of research, given the number of lives that could be saved or improved ... The potential gain is just too great to begin slamming doors shut this early in the experimental process.

  • No, Actually, You Should  National Review's Wesley Smith maintains that "the stem-cell issue isn't a science debate, but an ethics debate." Smith wryly wonders why we never hear about adult stem-cell research, which he calls "ethically uncontentious," as opposed to the often fraught issue of embryonic stem cells. If embryonic stem cells had garnered the kind of hopeful lab results that adult stem cells have, "it would have made the front page of the New York Times." Smith concludes that "in my more cynical moments, I think that many in the media simply consider adult stem cells to be the wrong kind."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.