Jaya and George Avirappattu flew with their 11-year-old son Jacob from New Jersey to the World Stem Cell Summit to learn about help for their son who was left blind, paralyzed and unable to speak after a car accident.
The family is not rushing into any unproven stem-cell injections or surgeries, but what they learned on Monday gave them hope. "We're willing to wait," Jacob's mother said.
But scientists at the summit warned that the wait may be even longer if the "fiscal cliff" occurs and federal budget cuts are extended to stem cell and other medical research. The National Institutes of Health's $30 billion budget may be trimmed by 7 to 10 percent.
That would be "devastating" to his research in cardiology," said University of Miami scientist Joshua Hare. His team is embarking on clinical trials of a discovery that can help repair a damaged heart but "we would have to let some people go" if funding was cut, Hare said.
The three-day summit organized by the Genetics Policy Institute based in Palm Beach and has attracted about 1,000 attendees from more than 40 countries.
Robert Klein, author of California's $6 billion initiative to fund stem cell research in 2004, said more states and other countries need to adopt his model, bond funding over several decades, because multiple generations benefit from the research.
"We will see more states issue bonds. They want to retain jobs," he said.
Federal government support of the research is less reliable because while stem cell research is supported by President Obama and the majority of the Senate, Republicans in the House of Representatives have proposed legislation that could put an end to stem cell research and in vitro fertilization. Critics including the Catholic Church and groups such as Right to Life object to embryonic stem cell research because embryos are destroyed in the process.
"Science generally is threatened," Klein said.
George Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at HHMI/Children's Hospital in Boston, noted that U.S. has been a leader in scientific discoveries, with Americans winning two-thirds of the Nobel Prizes in the last few decades. But now countries such as China, which he visited recently, are investing heavily in stem-cell research and recruiting talent.
Daley said while there is much promise in new stem cell research methods, many challenges and obstacles remain both in the science and commercializing the discoveries. But stem cells also are improving the way scientists can find solutions to problems, such as better drug development.
In Daley's Boston lab, his team has created human-tissue cells to compare to normal cells to potential treat a syndrome that affects some children being able to digest foods and fight infection. "We might be able to repurpose a drug to potentially use in patients," he said.
But following regulatory protocols is important to promoting patient safety, he said.
"We have to strike the right balance between not over-promising and not under-delivering," he said.
Dr. Jeanne Loring, who works for the Scripps Reseach Institute in La Jolla, Calif. -- the sister research institute to Scripps Florida in Jupiter -- said she is now able to work with human-tissue generated stem cells to battle diseases including Parkinson's. She still relies on lines of embryonic stem cells as a "control" group in her research.
She plans a small, human clinical trial transplanting stem cells generated from Parkinson's disease patients from their own bodies. She has the volunteers and is working toward FDA approval. "There are no shortage of volunteers," she said. But any such procedure is risky and may not work.
"I'm very careful not to give people too much hope," Loring said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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