When Bean Counters Trump Scientists

Stem cell

“I know one day I will get out of this chair and pick up my son

and hold him right. I promised my family that I would walk again, and I will make that dream come true.”

Roman Reed, paralyzed from the waist down, speaking about the lifting of the stem cell research ban in 2009.

It is a dream held by virtually every victim of crippling spinal cord injuries and their care-givers, a treatment that could bring back feeling and restore the use of disabled limbs. Stem cells have offered hope that the dream will soon come true. They are wondrous cells, able to transform themselves into any type of cell in the body, muscle, cardiac, even the mysterious neurons that make up our nervous system. Specifically, embryonic stem cells, typically derived from embryos produced for fertility treatments, had shown the greatest promise in the treatment of both injuries and disease.

Geron, a Menlo Park biotechnology company, was the undisputed pioneer in the field. They were the ones who funded much of the research by the University of Wisconsin that led to the discovery of embryonic stem cells in 1998. Geron helped fund the 2005 research, that found when rats paralyzed by spinal cord damage were injected with stem cells, transformed in the laboratory into nerve cells, they could actually regain the use of their paralyzed limbs. It was also Geron which in 2009 gained government approval to begin the first clinical study on humans of this promising therapy. This initial study was only designed to test whether the injection of modified stem cells was safe, but two years into the study, researchers had not found any significant adverse effects. George Q. Daley, a leading stem cell researcher at Harvard Medical School was recently quoted as saying, “A safe first trial would have paved the way for many others to follow.”

Notice the use of the words “would have.” On November 14th of this year, Geron announced that it was halting its stem cell research. It wasn’t because the treatment was dangerous. All four of the patients tested so far were fine. It wasn’t because the stem cells had proved ineffective. Their initial study was only on safety not efficacy. It wasn’t that they were concerned by bad publicity or protests by anti-abortion activists who objected to the use of embryonic cells. The company had successfully weathered that uproar for years. No, the sole reason given for cancelling this miraculous treatment, which had given hope to thousands, paralyzed by spinal cord injuries that they would one day be able to walk again, was financial.

John A. Scarlett, Geron CEO

John A. Scarlett, Geron’s chief executive officer said in a company news release, “In the current environment of capital scarcity and uncertain economic conditions, we intend to focus our resources on advancing our…two novel and promising oncology drug candidates.” Stem cells did offer tremendous profit for the company, but not fast enough. Because of the nature of the treatments and the requirements of the FDA regulatory process, stem cell therapy was not expected to show a profit for five to ten years. By shifting resources to the two cancer drugs the company executives expected to show a significant profit within 20 months. Scarlett went on to explain, “By narrowing our focus to the oncology therapeutic area, we anticipate having sufficient financial resources to reach these important near-term value inflection points for shareholders without the necessity of raising additional capital.” In order to achieve these goals, they will phase out all stem cell research, not just for spinal cord injuries, but other promising treatments as well to help heart patients, diabetics, people with autoimmune disorders and those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The company will also lay off 66 people, 38% of their workforce.

Christopher Reeve

Forget the dreams. Forget the hope. Even if other companies take up stem cell mantle, and at least one is doing just that, the Geron funded research was the first and only one approved for human testing. Geron’s abdication of the field will set back stem cell therapy for years. Daniel Heumann is a board member of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. The foundation was named for the Superman actor, paralyzed from the neck down in an accident ,who died waiting for a treatment like this. In response to the Geron decision Heumann expressed the anger of many when he said, “I’m disgusted. It makes me sick, to get peoples hopes up and then do this for financial reasons is despicable. They’re treating us like lab rats.”


5 thoughts on “When Bean Counters Trump Scientists

  1. Downs

    Thanks for an interesting, timely, and informative blog post.

    The sentence-by-sentence writing is careful and the tone is both scientific and passionate. The ending might be stronger, because though it is eloquent, it says what I expected you to say. That doesn’t mean you need to take the other opinion (not at all), but that I’d love to read a post that goes a step farther and says something about capitalism and science, or capitalism and health, and what is ambiguous about that relationship. Or, perhaps, you could even write about the relationship of money and discovery and curiosity.

  2. I had a good laugh listening to you on the radio taday bemoaning the total failure of embryonic and fetal stem cells, especially since you dutifully ignored all the great advances made in ethical adult and chord blood stem cells that have been acieved while your favorite unethical ones that violate Geneva and Nuremberg have produced little more than tumors. Geron has abandonned this ghoulish research because it has been a total failure over more than two decades, and has wasted countless millions of both private and public monies. Yet – STILL – here you are hopelessly preying on the disabled and infirm. Not so funny after all, when I think about it. YOU are a PERFECT example of what the politics over science philosophy is all about. You’d rather keep dragging us back to Nazi Medical ethics and waste millions more of OTHER people’s money than finally admit the scientific FAILURE of your fave pet project that has already destroyed thousand and saved exactly no one. It gives me pause to consider that people like you are teaching children. It really does.


    “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, from the time of its conception; even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity; I will practice my profession with conscience and dignity”

    Hippocratic Oath
    Declaration of Geneva
    following the Nazi Doctor’s Trial at Nuremberg

    1. mad4science

      Adult stem cells have many theraputic uses but not as many as embryonic stem cells. The implication that harvesting stem cells from an 8 day old ball of cells that was scheduled to be thrown away by a fertility clinic is absurd hyperbole. You can argue that even though it has no brain, no sentience, no ability to feel pain or any other sensation at all, it is still human because it carries human DNA and has the potential to become human, but cloning research has shown us that the same thing can be said of many human cells, a removed appendix, hair folicles, cheek swabs, etc. Do you think that beuticians should be convicted of war crimes for destroying potential humans every time they exfoliate a client? Those skin cells are exactly as sensient as 8 day old embryonic cells that are used to create stem cell lines. While we are on the topic, adult stem cells are just as much alive and just as much human as embryonic stem cells. Do you think harvesting them is akin to murder?

      Your attempt to link this to the Nuremberg code and by extention link embryonic stem cell research to the Nazis is simply false. THe 10 principles of the Nuremberg code don’t mention anything about human life starting at conception. See for yourself:

      The 10 points are, (all from United States National Institutes of Health)

      1.The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him/her to make an understanding and enlightened decision. This latter element requires that before the acceptance of an affirmative decision by the experimental subject there should be made known to him the nature, duration, and purpose of the experiment; the method and means by which it is to be conducted; all inconveniences and hazards reasonable to be expected; and the effects upon his health or person which may possibly come from his participation in the experiment. The duty and responsibility for ascertaining the quality of the consent rests upon each individual who initiates, directs or engages in the experiment. It is a personal duty and responsibility which may not be delegated to another with impunity.

      2.The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature.

      3.The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment.

      4.The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.

      5.No experiment should be conducted where there is a prior reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.

      6.The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.

      7.Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death.

      8.The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment.

      9.During the course of the experiment the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible.

      10.During the course of the experiment the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he has probable cause to believe, in the exercise of the good faith, superior skill and careful judgment required of him that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject.

      Reprinted from Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10, Vol. 2, pp. 181–182. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949. Note that complete electronic copies of the Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuernberg [Nuremberg] Military Tribunals Under Control Council Law No. 10 [3] are available online, as are most of the other proceedings from the Nuremberg Trials.[4]

  3. Fantastic website you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any discussion boards that
    cover the same topics talked about here? I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get comments from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thank you!

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