On the 24th of this month, an international committee on stem cell research will meet in London to present their findings from visits to labs around the world, and Dr. Stephen Minger, a UK-based stem cell researcher, will have lots to say about China.
In September, Minger, part of a delegation of stem-cell experts, visited 20 Chinese labs, all intent on pushing the limits of this ethically complex technology. "We weren't expecting to find labs better equipped and organized than back home, but the Chinese ones certainly are, and their pace of developing research into clinical treatment is far more accelerated," he says.
How much China is spending on embryonic stem cell biotechnology is hard to pinpoint, but given the amounts of equipment purchased and Beijing's fiercely competitive remuneration packages for foreign-educated Chinese scientists, it's clear China expects results.
As the body ages, most cells stop reproducing. Stem cell theory hones in on the so-called ?totipotent? cells in embryos, which can theoretically be converted into specific cells a person might need. Since its emergence in the late nineties, the anticipated benefits of this biotech industry have led to spiraling expectations.
Inject the correspondent stem cells into a severed spinal column, and they will rebuild it, the theory goes. Reintroduce brain stem cells into a sufferer of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and lost motor skills come back to life.
Once dismissed as sci-fi hokum, reversal of paralysis is now being actively pursued by research centers worldwide – to the rapt attention of governments and investors like US-based Genentech, not to mention patient groups.
Dr. Huang Hang Yun of the Beijing Scientific Institute in Chaoyang Hospital made headlines last year implementing a procedure for treating paralysis, using stem cell injections in patients' spinal columns and forebrains to return lost motor control due to injury or debilitating diseases like ALS. At a September meeting with American and British researchers, Huang reported modest successes among the more than 500 foreign and Chinese patients he operated on. Though none were "cured," online paralysis support groups like US-based Care Cure have been abuzz with reports of Huang's patients experiencing small but radical gains that defy conventional science's view, namely that spinal paralysis is irreversible.
News of his radical treatment has spread fast, inducing scores of foreigners to travel to Beijing to undergo the experimental treatment, though many stem-cell experts still question Huang's findings.
Meanwhile, the debate about the fine line that separates therapeutic cloning and outright human cloning continues apace. Although Beijing explicitly banned reproductive cloning in 1998, the policy has been called "toothless."
Whether for the sake of appearances or because of genuine concern, China last year joined 19 other countries in endorsing a resolution to allow therapeutic cloning techniques, being careful to distinguish it from the shibboleth of copying entire human beings.
In the meantime, domestic stem cell funding – which one industry insider puts at US$100m this year, continues to be allocated to laboratories around the country, putting more pressure on researchers to produce the goods.
Centers around the world are scrambling to develop stem cell capabilities, and mapping ambitious targets. According to Forbes, venture capital investors committed nearly US$4.5bn to the field in 2004, with US-based research companies Geron, Viacell, and Stem Cell Inc. getting the lion's share of investment.
Although no one has officially come out and said anything, it would seem inevitable that venture cash will eventually wash into labs in China – far from the noise of the cloning debate.
As news of Chinese stem cell developments has spread abroad, labs in Shanghai and Beijing are catching the attention of foreign investors.
"There's already the two-way traffic between European and Chinese labs that will lead EU investors to the potential in Asia," Minger says. "With the speed of research here, I think they'll get their returns."
Yet proven results have yet to come close to matching either China's fancy facilities or the more fanciful claims of a few of its labs. Still, Minger found that ethics do play a large part in Chinese stem cell treatments like Dr. Huang's, but are pushing development forward instead of retarding it. "Even though the Chinese labs haven't gotten the international recognition that they could if their funding system emphasized the controls and publishing that the West does, their medical ethos – that you should not withhold promising treatments from willing patients – has them out there doing it while we're still just talking about it."
China, of course, has its reasons for becoming a world-beater in the field. Official data indicates more than 8m Chinese suffer from partial or total paralysis.
And China certainly has the donor resources, with an estimated 20m abortions performed every year.
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