Opponents of human embryonic stem cell research make much of the fact that,in the words of New Atlantis editor Eric Cohen,"there has not been a single human trial of an embryonic stem cell therapy." That may be about to change. Last night, at its annual gala dinner, the Alliance for Aging Research, a Washington, DC-based biomedical research lobbying group, honored Woo Suk Hwang with its "Indispensable Person in Health Care" award.
Woo Suk Hwang is the leader of the Korean research team at Seoul National University that produced the first cloned human embryos in 2004. That success was followed by Hwang's derivation and establishment of 11 different stem cell lines from embryos cloned using cells from specific patients earlier this year. The team also succeeded in creating the first cloned dog.
In accepting the award, Hwang said that his research could ameliorate the health problems that accompany aging, such as failing memories, muscle wasting, cancers, and immune system declines. With stem cell therapies "these might become conditions of the past," declared Hwang. He added that cloned stem cell lines from patients who suffer from chronic debilitating diseases will help researchers identify what goes wrong and point toward cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes. Hwang noted that with cloned stem cells we would be "treating our bodies with our own perfectly matched cells," thus avoiding the problem of immune rejection that bedevils conventional organ and tissue transplants.
Speaking afterwards, Hwang's American collaborator, Gerald Schatten from the University of Pittsburgh, agreed that cloning lines of diseased stem cells instead of relying on animal research could "vastly accelerate" research on many diseases. However, Schatten noted that creating such cloned human stem cell lines in his home state of Pennsylvania is a felony. "It's amazing, said Schatten, "that we criminalize this work. Imagine if instead of one lab in Korea there were a dozen, or even a hundred labs, fighting to make sure we all live longer and healthier lives."
Before his presentation, I talked briefly with Hwang and asked him when we might see therapies derived from human embryonic stem cells. Hwang smiled and told me that he expected to start transplanting cells derived from cloned stem cells into patients by the end of next year. He expects that the first patients will be a person with a spinal cord injury and another with Parkinson's disease. He will treat them with cloned cells that will be perfectly matched to those specific patients. Of course, lots can go wrong with the early development of biomedical treatments, and Hwang might be a tad overoptimistic. However, considering his results so far, Hwang may actually succeed in using human embryonic stem cells as a treatment. "I promise that our medical researchers are working non-stop," concluded Hwang.
So saying there has not been a single trial of an embryonic stem cell therapy may be a lot like saying in 1902 that "heavier than air flight is impossible." It's true until it's not.