Stem cell scientists share concerns
Some stem cell scientists in Australia and the U.K. are worried they might not be able to live up to some of the promises made about their work, new research has found.
The study's authors also found many others are concerned about commercialization biasing research and about some in the field rushing to clinical research, risking patient safety and the reputation of the science as a whole.
The research, based on interviews with stem cell researchers, was presented at a recent Asia-Pacific Science, Technology and Society Network conference in Brisbane.
One study, by Nicola Marks, a science and technology studies scholar at the University of Wollongong, involved in-depth interviews with 54 stem cell scientists in Australia and the U.K.
A scientist by training, Marks became interested in studying what scientists thought about their work and its relationship to the public.
Marks says many scientists struggle with the tension between their need to focus on the potential benefits of their work when trying to get research funding, and their desire not to give patients false expectations.
"Some scientists were concerned they wouldn't live up to the promises they'd made," Marks says.
Another researcher, presenting at the conference, supported this finding.
Kate Seear, a health sociologist focusing on new and emerging technologies at Monash University in Melbourne, reported on her interviews with those involved in stem cell research in Australia.
She says while scientists and clinicians believe stem cell science has incredible potential, they also know it needs to be supported for decades before it can possibly deliver.
To secure the funding required in this globally competitive field, scientists feel they need to sustain interest without "unreasonable hype" and generating "false hope," says Seear.
"There's a delicate balance that you need to strike between keeping publics informed about progress that's being made in stem cell research, but not leading them to believe that some of these revolutionary applications are just around the corner."
Fear of bad publicity
Both Seear and Marks found scientists are worried about some researchers forging ahead too fast with clinical trials, potentially leading to bad outcomes for patients and risking the reputation of stem cell science as a whole.
Seear found scientists are concerned about "stem cell tourism," in which patients travel overseas for highly experimental stem cell treatments.
But Marks says some of her interviewees were more concerned about what was going on in their home country.
"A lot of people blame 'cowboys' in other countries, but some people were concerned about what was happening closer to home," she says.
While not calling for more regulation, Marks says these scientists were concerned about colleagues rushing to clinical trials prior to having enough evidence on safety.
"One stem cell researcher in Australia, for example, was concerned about clinicians having a lot of power over their ethical review boards and being able to do things that they shouldn't be allowed to do," says Marks.
She says scientists find it hard to decide when they have enough knowledge to go forward.
Marks say some researchers also expressed concern that commercial influences would bias research and prevent publication of adverse findings.
Others believe commercial funding is the only way to realistically get the financial support needed to develop any therapeutic treatment, she says.
Marks says researchers are also concerned about how well patients are being informed when consenting to stem cells being harvested by researchers.
"The point of stem cells is they divide forever, potentially, so you don't know what sort of research is going to be done on those cells in 10 years time," she says.
Some scientists are worried people might not actually realize this, and this could lead to problems for researchers down the track, says Marks.
Marks says scientists would like a broader discussion than the usual polarized debate between "the fervent religious person, the outspoken scientist and the patient in the wheelchair."
She says scientists also found it useful to speak to patients who were the intended beneficiaries of their research.
For example, Marks says, when some stem cell scientists working on spinal cord repair spoke to those with spinal cord injuries, they found out it was more important for the patients to have bladder control than to get out of their wheelchair.
"That sort of interaction can actually help shape research agendas for the better."