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TITLE:  Influential journal plans push to publish more stem-cell studies
SOURCE: The Boston Globe, USA, by Raja Mishra
DATE:   Jul 17, 2003

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Influential journal plans push to publish more stem-cell studies
Editor: Deterring political opposition to research is goal

The world's most influential medical journal has pledged to aggressively
seek out and publish research on embryonic stem cells to boost the
controversial field's standing among politicians and the public.

The declaration by the Boston-based New England Journal of Medicine, in
an editorial printed today, marks the publication's most significant
foray into a broad societal debate perhaps since the 1980s, when its
editors sought out papers on the then-controversial AIDS virus.

The journal regularly takes editorial stands on medical ethics issues,
though generally aimed at the medical community. But given the heavy
media coverage regularly generated by the journal's scientific studies,
publishing papers that detail stem cells' potential could deter political
opposition to the research, which requires the destruction of tiny human
embryos, said the journal's top editor.

''Nothing is better for a field than true progress, to be able to say,
`We can do this, and we may be able to cure that,' '' said Dr. Jeffrey M.
Drazen, editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Embryonic stem cells are versatile cells that can morph into any body
tissue, and could be harnessed as replacement tissue to treat afflictions
like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, diabetes, and spinal cord
injuries. However, tiny multicell human embryos must be destroyed in
order to harvest the cells, an act many abortion opponents find deeply

In August 2001, President Bush limited federal government funding of
embryonic stem cell research to scientists who use cells from 78
preapproved stem cell ''lines'' or batches derived from embryos that had
already been destroyed.

This limitation has turned out to be far more restrictive than first
thought: only 11 of the 78 batches are currently accessible to
researchers for a variety of technical and legal reasons, according to
federal health officials.

Many scientists believe Bush's policy has hampered US research efforts,
while other nations with more flexible regulations -- notably Britain,
Sweden, South Korea, and Australia -- have raced ahead.

In the last fiscal year, the US National Institutes of Health spent about
$11 million on embryonic stem cell grants, according to federal
statistics. Sixty researchers at 48 US institutions have gotten grants.
In contrast, much-smaller Britain, whose government has embraced stem
cell research, spent $41.5 million in stem cell research grants in 2002,
including the start-up of a government-run stem cell bank that plans to
store dozens of batches for research use.

Factions in the US Congress have attempted to further limit or ban
embryonic stem cell research, though without success thus far. The issue
promises to figure in the upcoming presidential campaign, with most
Democratic candidates against Bush's policy.

Meanwhile, scientific progress on embryonic stem cells has been
methodical. Strong evidence indicates the cells contain the
transformative power scientists have boasted about. But this theoretical
work has produced little in the way of treatments for patients.

When such advances are discovered, the New England Journal of Medicine
made clear today it wants to publish them.

In today's editorial, the journal's editors pledge to ''do our part'' to
promote stem cell science by giving the growing research field a
prominent place in its pages.

''I think it sends a message internationally that the guardians of this
medical publication realize the importance of this field and will seek
out the best papers wherever they come from,'' said Dr. George Q. Daley,
a stem cell specialist at the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute and
Harvard Medical School. ''It's an enormous endorsement.''

Daley authored an analysis of stem cell politics, also in today's New
England Journal of Medicine, one of four articles on the issue that the
journal's editors framed as a response to the US House's vote last spring
to outlaw embryonic stem cell research.

''Once we demonstrate the ability of the research to create new
medicines, the public will endorse this,'' he said.

Marie Sturgis, executive director of the 25,000-member Massachusetts
Citizens for Life, which opposes abortion and embryonic stem cell
research, said high-profile stem cell studies in the New England Journal
of Medicine ''will make it more difficult for us, for sure.

''But it still involves the creation of life for the purpose of killing
it. The end does not justify the means,'' she said. ''Our membership is
still very concerned about this research.''

Combating the arguments of groups like Massachusetts Citizens for Life
was very much in the minds of the journal's editors when they decided on
the new policy, said editor in chief Drazen.

''We thought it was important for the journal to go on record to say that
we feel this is important research,'' he said. ''We wanted to make it
clear that we are interested in publishing papers of this type.''

Though all stem cell papers will first be reviewed by a panel of experts,
Drazen has final say on which papers appear. Scientists submitting stem
cell papers must detail the ethical safeguards in place for every
experiment, said Drazen, who added that each paper would by analyzed on a
''case by case basis'' for ethical concerns.

The New England Journal of Medicine has published few major embryonic
stem cell papers to date, with most such studies appearing in the
journals Nature and Science. Drazen would not say whetherany had recently
been approved for publication.


download the NEJM articles at:

CURRENT ISSUE: July 17, 2003

- Medical Progress The Stem-Cell Promise - Free Full Text
- Perspective Cloning and Stem Cells - Free Full Text
- Editorial Legislative Myopia on Stem Cells - Free Full Text


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