The Corner

“Contamination”

What to make of the LA Times story up last night about “contaminated” stem cell lines (“Study Says All Stem Cell Lines Tainted”)? Here’s the read of a clued in expert I talked with this morning:

Well, fundamentally it’s an effort to make an argument for new stem cell lines, by undermining the viability of all the existing lines, including those federally funded. There’s not much new to it, except now it’s dressed up in a “new” study, when everyone has always known that these lines (not just the Bush-approved ones, but almost all ES cell lines developed past a certain stage) were developed with so-called mouse feeder cells. To call this “contamination” is simply dishonest. A good number of cell products used in humans are developed with feeder cells from animals, and some of these (not embryonic cells, but other cell products) have been successfully developed into medical treatments in the past.

A couple of key points. First, it is not true that all the Bush-approved lines were developed with these mouse feeder cells. There are sixteen lines (not counted in the LA Times’s “20 or so” available lines) that have been frozen in an early state, so as to wait for better cell development techniques. These have never been exposed to mouse feeder cells or any other cells, they are frozen and could be used if these folks had a better method to suggest.

Second, the FDA has a lot of experience dealing with cell products (again, not embryonic stem cell, but others) developed with such animal cells. Then-administrator of the FDA Mark McClellan, in testimony before [the president’s bioethics council] in September of 2003 [found here] was asked about the mouse feeder layer issue in embryonic stem cells, and he replied: “We’ve certainly had experience, successful experience, in thousands of patients in documenting the safety of cells that have been exposed to animal feeder cells, mouse feeder cells, and the like.”

This new study strikes me as a partially dishonest repackaging of old worries in an effort to put new pressure on the Bush administration’s funding policy. The trouble with it, as with all similar efforts by the researchers, is that the policy is based on a moral conviction, not a scientific assessment. Even if what they are saying were correct, it doesn’t change the moral problem with embryonic stem cell research, and so will not change the policy. And from what I can see, it isn’t correct either.

Par for the course, alas. What a course!

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