First human trial of embryonic stem cell treatment begins

12 October 2010

The first clinical trial to use potentially therapeutic human embryonic stem (HES) cells in human subjects has begun in the US.

Patients with recent spinal cord injuries will receive injections of HES cells that have been ‘programmed’ to form new nerve cells. This procedure, from a company called Geron, has shown some success in animal models but has not previously been tested in humans. The main purpose of this first stage trial is to assess safety. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensed the trial, and Geron announced today that they have recruited their first patient. However, it will probably be some years before it is possible to determine how safe and effective the treatment is.
This trial follows soon after the news that the UK General Medical Council (GMC) has struck off a doctor for giving multiple sclerosis patients wholly unproven stem cell treatments, and further for using stem cells from a source not approved for use in humans. It must be highly frustrating for researchers in regenerative medicine working to create genuine treatments to see the promise of their work tarnished in public perception by proponents who may wildly exaggerate the degree or timescale of potential benefits, or even exploit vulnerable patients.
Meanwhile, as the legal wrangling over federal funding for HES cell research (see previous news) continues in the US, a new poll has shown that a majority of Americans support such research. This refers specifically to the use of surplus embryos left after in vitro fertilisation procedures for medical research, as opposed to commercial production of a therapeutic product, which might attract a slightly different view.

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