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The new lab rats

"The new lab rats" Continued...

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

Pharmaceutical companies are already moving forward. In my survey (see sidebar below) of the stem-cell policies of the world's top 10 pharmaceutical companies, seven were either already working with hESCs or had guidelines in place for doing so. (One company responded that it did not conduct stem-cell research; another wished to review its current research programs before verifying a nonembryonic stem-cell policy; a third didn't respond in time for this story.)

The Obama administration's friendly approach toward work on hESCs may encourage many U.S. pharmaceutical and medical companies to accelerate the development of their own hESC-based therapies and products. Geron and GE plan to have their first drug-testing product, incorporating heart muscle cells, ready by early 2010.

The process

How stem cells get from an embryo to the final product that GE Healthcare will market

By Daniel James Devine

1. Sperm and egg are joined by in vitro fertilization at a fertility clinic.

2. After about three days, the embryo grows to eight cells. The parents may decide to implant it, freeze it indefinitely, destroy it, or donate it for research.

3. Scientists take a donated embryo, grown to the blastocyst stage (about 5 days old), and remove stem cells, destroying the embryo in the process.

4. In Geron's lab, the stem cells are encouraged to divide and reproduce themselves indefinitely, resulting in large cell banks.

5. The stem cells are coaxed to developing into specific tissue types: (A) heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes), and (B) liver cells (hepatocytes).

6. GE Healthcare packages the heart or liver cells in a final testing product and sells it to pharmaceutical companies.

7. Researchers at the pharmaceutical companies who are developing new drugs test the drugs on the heart or liver cells and watch for toxic effects. The cells may die, become diseased, or remain healthy.

Stem-cell policies

Most of the world's top 10 pharmaceutical companies (by revenue) either conduct research on embryonic stem cells or have guidelines in place for such research, including:
• Johnson & Johnson
• Pfizer
• GlaxoSmithKline
• Roche Group
• Novartis
• AstraZeneca
• Merck

Only one of the top companies-Abbott Laboratories-would confirm that it does not conduct such research. Sanofi-aventis had a policy against using embryonic stem cells but did not verify that the policy remains in place. Wyeth, which is being acquired by Pfizer, did not respond.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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