Stem Cells and Visionaries
Why was I not surprised to read that esteemed South Korean biomedical research scientist Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk admitted that he had faked the data he reported in Science regarding his alleged cloning of 11 human embryonic stem cells? What a disappointment, but not that unexpected.
Over the years we have heard from many a scientist who was “on the verge” of a major breakthrough in some aspect of human bioscience. I’ve heard them speak in their passive drones at medical society meetings nationwide.
These distinguished men of science, their curricula vitae dripping with incomprehensibly titled publications, received huge financial grants to continue their ground-breaking work. They were escorted to the meetings in limousines equal to their stature in the medical community and fawned over by the conferees.
Alas, many of these scientific pipe dreams were ultimately determined to be just that. It, therefore, is not surprising that Dr. Hwang’s research, once hailed as a premier advance in the conquest of disease, was proved to be another fraud. It was denounced and exposed by his University of Pittsburgh colleagues and the entire faculty of the Seoul medical research campus.
It was surprising that within days of Dr. Hwang’s mea culpa our own Gov. Robert Ehrlich mentioned he might find it valuable for Maryland to spend some surplus state funds for stem cell research. He cited work taking place at our own Johns Hopkins research campus in Baltimore.
Certainly there is promising work at Johns Hopkins. Its work, described as using its “somatic cell nuclear transfer technique” (therapeutic cloning), showed promise in cardiac patients whose hearts had been damaged by myocardial infarction (heart attacks). They admit they have a long way to go, needing more money, time and volunteer subjects.
There is lots of public and private money available in medical research. All one needs is a credible scientific thesis and assent from a disinterested medical review board much like that sitting at Science and the New England Journal of Medicine. The Johns Hopkins suite of stem cell research teams is funded today by the National Institutes of Health, which supports many budding programs.
Stem cells are derived primarily from embryonic, fetal and adult tissue. Many pro-life advocates decry the probable result of making legal the practice of aborting a fetus and selling the harvested stem cells.
The Johns Hopkins crew tries to distance itself from those who criticize what they contend is perhaps the ultimate result of stem cell research – taking a life to save a life.
Some have called stem cell research “tilting at windmills,” in the manner of the fabled Conquistador Don Quixote. Who really has the crystal ball to see into the future and give a yea or nay to things we simply do not understand?
It does take a visionary to attack a medical problem and create a thesis worthy of exploration. My experience with those at Fort Detrick’s military and civilian laboratories has been an astounding realization of what can result from tenacity and skilled medical minds. Combined with personal charisma, sheer chutzpa and courage, such a man or woman might create what others would say is impossible.
Recently I stumbled in trying to answer a valid question from one of our local legislators, who posed a question about the viability of Maryland funding of stem cell research. I blurted, in essence, that it was not a state responsibility, rather a federal funding effort, which was indeed being done.
I wish I could have been more forthcoming based on nearly 28 years of interaction with some of the world’s leading scientists in laboratories at Fort Detrick.
Medical research and development grant money needs that visionary scientist described above. What sets this scientist apart is a sound biomedical and scientific foundation, projected toward an identified human need, using a technique that he or she has proved efficacious.
The search by British bacteriologist Alexander Fleming in 1928 to verify the spectacular healing powers of something called Penicillin notatum was stalled more than a decade. Two Oxford University researchers, Howard Florey and Norman Heatley, continued Dr. Fleming’s work in some obscurity. They virtually smuggled a small package of the early product into the United States in 1941 because the war stymied further research in Britain.
Matched up with Andrew Moyer at the Peoria (Ill.) laboratory, they succeeded by 1943 in proving the viability of penicillin and reproducing it rapidly. It became the wonder drug of the decade – and century.
It is interesting to hear scientists discuss their theories and expected outcomes around a table filled with experts of differing scientific disciplines – a virtual “murder board” intent on finding the chinks in the research. They approve facilities and personnel for the life of the project.
Fort Detrick research teams search for a variety of vaccines, toxoids and other preventive and therapeutic products for diseases that threaten military members at home and abroad.
It is a boon that Frederick’s military and civilian researchers continue to create new and wonderful disease killers in spite of those who doubt the veracity of their work and their ideas. They are not timid little people who pace their laboratories, stopping only to express a good “harrumph.”
One known quantity in research is that once you have achieved a viable vaccine candidate, it can be up to 10 years before the Food and Drug Administration gives its approval. The ultimate manufacturer also looks at the projected bottom line, the market. There isn’t much profit, for example, in producing the plague vaccine used by the Armed Forces, thus the government indemnifies it, paying for its manufacture as well as for many other such preventive products.
One needs to be circumspect when assessing the expected benefits to be derived from stem cell research. There is a huge menu of potential results from the many stem cell research hypotheses. It could be of the caliber of Dr. Hwang’s counterfeit science, or border on the wonder that came with penicillin and all its derivations the past 64 or so years.
High hopes. We all have them. No matter the funding source, here’s hoping the scope of stem cell research exceeds our expectations and validates these visionary bioscience teams.