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End of Human Trials Deals Major Blow to Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The world's first human trials using human embryonic stem cells has been abruptly halted with the results showing no improvement in those treated.

New Scientist is reporting that biotech giant Geron has decided to call off its stem cell research, including the first approved human trials in which 11 people with spinal injuries were being treated with embryonic stem cells.

The firm, which is based in Menlo Park, California, says its decision is purely financial and not based on any moral reasons or negative results from the patients treated thus far.

The company claims that it had to choose between research in stem cells and cancer, and decided cancer was a more profitable area. "By narrowing our focus to the oncology therapeutic area, we anticipate having sufficient financial resources to reach these important [targets] without the necessity of raising additional capital," says John Scarlett, Geron's chief executive officer. "This would not be possible if we continue to fund the stem cell programs at the current levels."

The decision is considered to be extraordinary because the company invested tens of millions in embryonic stem cell therapy over the past decade and winning approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to conduct the first human trials was considered historic.

Geron has already treated four persons by injecting embryonic stem cells into their injured spines.  As The Scientist reports, the patients "have tolerated the treatments well and not shown any signs of adverse effects, according to the company, but so far, no patients have shown any neurologic changes that are consistent with efficacy."

Some scientists, such as Robert Lanza at Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Massacusetts, believe Geron was wrong to choose such a difficult condition as spinal cord injury as its first human trial.

"Many experts were surprised when they selected spinal cord injury. We knew it was going to be very difficult to show a biological effect," Lanza said.

Alison Murdoch at the UK's Newcastle University agrees: "Making superman walk would have been great for business, but was an ambitious target for a serious problem, and maybe not the best start scientifically or clinically for stem cell therapies."

Others are bitterly disappointed by the move. Joanna Knott, Co-Founder and Chair of SpinalCure Australia told the BBC: "This is incredibly sad and frustrating news for people with spinal injuries and their families. It is devastating for those people who will have a spinal injury and may as a result of this research been cured."

Daniel Heumann, who is on the board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, told The Washington Post: "I'm disgusted. It makes me sick. To get people's hopes up and then do this for financial reasons is despicable. They're treating us like lab rats."

Josephine Quintavalle from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics told the BBC: "At long last after 10 years of unremitting hype, reality has caught up with embryonic stem cell claims. If Geron is abandoning this project it is because it is simply not working, despite the millions of dollars and hot air that has been invested in the promotion of this research."

The news comes in the wake of an international stem cell conference hosted by the Vatican in which Pope Benedict XVI lauded the impressive strides of adult stem cell research.

“The potential benefits of adult stem cell research are very considerable, since it opens up possibilities for healing chronic degenerative illnesses by repairing damaged tissue,” he said. "The improvement that such therapies promise would constitute a significant step forward in medical science, bringing fresh hope to sufferers and their families alike.”

He went on to say that those who promote embryonic stem cell research as a potential source of medical cures make the “grave mistake of denying the inalienable right to life of all human beings from the moment of conception to natural death. The destruction of even one human life can never be justified in terms of the benefit that it might conceivably bring to another.”

Co-host of the Vatican conference was Neostem, a U.S. based research firm that focuses on adult stem cell research, in which the Vatican has invested $1 million.

Geron's decision is considered to be a major setback by the scientific community because it casts further doubt on whether or not embryonic stem cell research will ever make it out of the laboratory. This has caused private investment to dry up which is why most American firms are being forced to turn to government initiatives and the allocation of taxpayer money to finance the unprofitable and highly controversial research.

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