Few sectors of science hold as much controversy and promise as stem cells. Work on the versatile cells could eventually yield a cure for Parkinson's, heart disease, and possibly diabetes. However, funding has been held up at the federal level after President Bush vetoed a stem cell bill in June.
Still, one recent development could help quell much of the controversy: scientists were able to harvest stem cells from adult mouse skin cells. If the same is possible on human cells, the technique could help scientists sidestep many of the ethical objections.
Stem cell stocks such as Geron (GERN) are a risky bunch, but with the likes of Mike Bloomberg, Eli Broad and Bill Gates funding this research around the world stem cells could one day fuel a biotech stock boom.
Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD joins the guys for this conversation from his lab at the UCSF Institute for Regeneration Medicine. Here are excerpts from what was said.
Start with heart disease. Where do we stand?
“You might hear about clinical trials.. they’re planning to use a type of stem cell that’s found in bone marrow,” says Kriegstein. “The thinking is these stem cells in some mysterious ways promote repair of the heart muscle itself.”
He adds, “Most scientists in the field are hoping the cells engineer themselves into the muscle and replace the injured cells.. and actually help heal the heart.”
He further adds, “The trials that are starting now, are a different approach and I think they are frankly going to be less successful...”
How much has politics harmed this science?
“It’s been a major hindrance,” explains Kriegstein. “Largely the message we get in scientific labs around the country – the NIH is not going to provide funding for new stem cell lines (coming from embryos).”
He adds, “This has put a real chill on the field. It’s kept a lot of young investigators from entering the field and it’s kept a lot of senior investigators from expanding their work.. ”
What about adult stem cells?
Kriegstein says “I think the adult stem cell argument is filled with misunderstandings. Adult stem cells really are not a replacement for embryonic stem cells. They’re much more limited and they’re restricted to certain adult organs. And while they may have advantages for certain kinds of tissues (such as re-growing skin)…for many other purposes it would really be an advantage to start with an embryonic stem cells.”
Where do we stand with diabetes?
“Diabetes is an attractive stem cell target, because there’s one kind of insulin secreting cell that dies in diabetes patients...” explains Kriegstein. “And the hope is if you can engineer embryonic stem cells to become (like those dying cells) so they can be transplanted... ”
He adds “That’s getting closer to reality.. it doesn’t quite get to the stage where it can secrete insulin but hopefully that’s a hurdle that we’ll overcome.”
If you do than diabetes goes away?
“Not entirely," replies Kriegstein. "It will be a treatment for the disease.. however diabetes will still require some form of immune therapy.”
How close are we to the first significant breakthrough?
“Things are moving along quickly in the field, but the public needs to understand this is a very young area of investigation, says Kriegstein. "Although it’s impossible to give an exact date, I think you’ll see a lot of exciting developments quickly.”
He adds, “It’s my hope that in 5-10 years 1 major disease will start to have a cell based therapy.”
Dylan Ratigan asks the guys if there’s a trade?
Guy Adami says Geron is a lottery ticket.. but if it hits it will pay off big.
Jeff Macke says the other play is buying big pharma with exposure to stem cell research.
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