Stem cell trial halted

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The world's first official trial using human embryonic stem cells in patients has been halted.

Geron, based in California, made the sudden announcement that it was halting further work in this field.

In a statement the company said in the "current environment of capital scarcity and uncertain economic conditions" it had decided to concentrate instead on developing cancer treatments.

Geron said it was seeking partners to enable further development of its stem cell programmes. The press statement implies the decision is purely a financial one - by stopping its stem cell programme it will cut its workforce by more than a third and save millions of dollars.

But the company has already invested tens of millions in the stem cell therapy over the past decade. Its submission to the US Food and Drug Administration to conduct the first trial in patients of human embryonic stem cells was the largest and most complex ever submitted.

Geron had injected stem cells into the spine of a small number of spinal patients to test safety. In its statement the company said the treatment had been "well tolerated with no serious adverse events".

The decision does seem to be extraordinary given the huge investment of time and resources. When I visited Geron nearly three years ago, the then chief executive Dr Tom Okarma claimed the technology had an incredible future (Green light for US stem cell work):

"What stem cells promise for a heart attack or spinal cord injury or diabetes is that you go to the hospital, you receive these cells and you go home with a repaired organ, that has been repaired by new heart cells or new new nerve cells or new islet cells that have been made from embryonic stem cells."

If that future exists, it won't be Geron that will now lead the way.

Ben Sykes, Executive Director of the UK National Stem Cell Network, said:

"Stem cell research continues to show great promise in helping many people currently suffering from incurable conditions and injuries. It is disappointing that Geron has taken the decision to stop its spinal cord injury trial but we hope that the company is able to find new partners who can take on the work and provide the necessary finance."

Joanna Knott, Co-Founder and Chair of SpinalCure Australia said: "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, was more forthright in The Washington Post online which reported him as saying: "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."

John Martin, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at University College London said: "The Geron trial had no real chance of success because of the design and the disease targeted. It was an intrinsically flawed study. And for that reasons we should not be describing this as a set back.

"The first trials of stem cell that will give an answer are our own in the heart. The heart is an organ that can give quantitative data of quality."

Josephine Quintavalle from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics said: "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."

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Limitless potential and long run return completely justifies investment! The fact that treatment has been "well tolerated with no serious adverse events" clearly shows potential! Why is this not worth spend? It seems as though this decision; like many others, has been purely made by those who ONLY have a financial motive with no interest in human ethics and healing!

    Btw it IS a cancer treatment

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    If the trials were flawed then maybe Geron wasn't the company to lead the way. A better one should take its place. But that doesn't mean that stem cell research itself is flawed, and I hope that irrational and vehemently anti-science groups like Comment on Reproductive Ethics aren't able to effectively use this decision as ammunition for lobbying governments against further work with stem cells.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @daypass...another pathetically naieve view on this treatment. The stem cells can be taken from a variety of palces and despite want those against this treatment may lead you to believe are not taken from babies. Try spending the majority of your life in pain and in a wheelchair and i can assure you that your outlook on new groundbreaking treatments would change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    As a multiple sclerosis patient and a musician I would love for the scarred tissue in my brain to be repaired so that I can continue bringing joy and happiness to those who hear my music for years to come. Life isn't just about the bottom line...

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Well some good news! Anything that draws a halt to using human embryos as a "natural resource" even if it is the accountants.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I don't suppose those raving mad christian far right have anything to do with this, do they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @uncarvedblock, what a terribly naive and uneducated thing to say. As a medic, it is clear you are a layperson when it comes to knowledge of aetiology of most disease. Whilst what you say may be true in part for diabetes and high blood pressure, it is much less so for, for example, Motor Neurone Disease.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Uncarved block;
    The very name "stem cells" indicates that in fact they are not chemcials but living cells! Plus they are actually derived from natural processes - you actually have types of stem cell in you right this moment e.g. producing blood cells (they are in the bone marrow). Before having a harsh opinion try to understand the processes first (e.g. look on a charity website, BBC etc)

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I'm not sure why we need Josephine Quintavalle's views. Geron was acting in its shareholders' interests, not on the basis that its work towards the alleviation of human suffering was ethically flawed. As Ben Sykes says, the work goes on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Delighted to hear that one of the world's leading organisations in the field has finally stopped. It has diverted much-needed resources from lines of research that will do much more to benefit humanity.

    I'd love to see more invested in adult stem-cell research, which has already delivered positive results. What has embryonic actually delivered? Zilch. Nada. Nil. Unless you count dashed hopes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I believe Geron Corp. should seek to continue their research into stem cell treatments in this case for spinal injuries. Stem cell treatments are revolutionizing medical science. The eventual return on investment for stem cell researchers is enormous. Let's hope that Geron finds suitable partners. Perhaps a successful joint venture can be arranged with a UK firm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Tell them to call HS2 Ltd they seem to have plenty to spend !!! Do us all a favour.
    Disgraceful that this sort of treatment is on hold when so much money ($Billions) are wasted elsewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Can any learned people on this board inform me on the procedure regarding stem cells and the heart.
    Do you you need to take the stem cells from a biopsy of the heart ?
    Or.. can the stem cells be taken from the bone marrow or blood.
    Regarding the the work that Geron has done, i,m sure all is not wasted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    uncarved block;

    yes lets go back to the middle ages when people depended on natural products, after all they all lived so much longer and happier then - DOH!

    Also they are talking about Spinal injuries - doubt if St John's Wort will help with the reconstruction of spinal column connections.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "it had decided to concentrate instead on developing cancer treatments."

    I imagine the use of stem cells could help with this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    lets go to the route of why we get these disease... pesticides, incredibly un natural diets, poor fitness and the chemicals we have in our food, cleaning products, water, air! We are unbalancing nature! Live naturally! Theres enough plants and natural chemicals on this planet to cure us 10 times over- no money in that though! by creating these chemicals we are damaging our eco system further!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    You have to agree with Prof. John Martin here though. In many respects this type of "Slap some stem cells on it" research is intrinsically flawed. It is not based on a comprehensive understanding of the disease pathology but rather on extrapolating from lab bench results and hoping for the best. I like everybody really hoped this had worked, but it is hard not to be cynical at science like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Geron said in current environment of capital scarcity & uncertain economic conditions, it decided to concentrate instead on developing cancer treatments; this too is desperately needed. Geron is developing first-class therapies for the treatment of cancer, advancing a telomerase inhibitor & peptide drug conjugate (& other procedures I don't understand). So maybe it's for the best, right now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Geron Corp. - first govt-approved test of embryonic stem cell therapy - is DISCONTINUING stem cell work due to conserve funds - eliminating 66 full-time jobs. Geron expects to end this year with more than $150M - not much for this type of research.
    I hate this. There is always money for war, killing & maiming, but never money for peace, efective treatments, & healing.


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