Special report: Regenerative medicine looks East

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Special report: Regenerative medicine looks East

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | July 08, 2011
From the April 2011 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine


While it’s true that states, seeing the federal government shy away, have stepped in to offer funds for stem cell research – California intends to pony up billions over the next decade – the real fear is that these policy debates could have one major long-term negative effect: scaring away bright young researchers. “If this flares up again, why would they go into this field?’ Hoffman asked. “With all the policy uncertainty, funding uncertainty, I mean there’s going to be enough problems for young investigators as it is.”

The uncertainty is weaker in China, of course, because controversy is much weaker. China has no similar restrictions on embryonic stem cell research – it’s regulated, but there are no restrictions on funding for new cell lines – and no similar cultural pressure that politicizes the science.

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That’s partly because the fuel for the debate – people who believe that embryos are “persons” that should not be destroyed to harvest stem cells are largely absent.

“The whole issue of embryo and personhood, it’s not there for people in this culture,” Hoffman said.

“Struggling” science
But not everyone’s convinced by China’s stem cell efforts.

Among the skeptics is Douglas Sipp, a researcher based in Japan. In a 2009 article in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, “Stem Cell Research in Asia: A Critical View,” he called China’s stem cell program “struggling” and “mired in controversy and weak performance.” He blames its problems on a lack of transparency for funding projects, perverse incentives to reward researchers by handing out bonuses solely for getting articles in high-impact publications and poor communication among the country’s labs and researchers.

“In the heyday of the excitement over human embryonic stem cells, for example, Chinese labs may have generated in excess of 100 new [stem cell] lines, but the lack of English language publications and the failure of the labs to register their lines on international databases has made this impossible to confirm, and the lines have made no international impact,” he wrote.

Communication is often cited as an issue. Levine said while there was certainly “world-class stem cell research in China,” with top labs doing work on the level of the best labs elsewhere in the world, it’s hard to gauge the quality of the “next few tiers of labs,” often because if results aren’t published in English-language journals, “few people in the West read it or understand it.”

“It’s hard to judge as a whole,” he noted.

Welcome to the Wild East
Possibly the weightiest albatross dangling from the neck of Chinese science is a reputation for fraud where stem cells are concerned. Hitherto lightly regulated stem cell “clinics” have mushroomed around the country offering unproven cures for virtually every disease in the Merck Manual: autism, paralysis, diabetes, even depression.

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