Although therapeutics companies working in the stem-cell arena are far from commercializing their results, companies that equip laboratories with analytical instruments and reagents are already beginning to gain from advances in the field and an influx of outside funding.
At the end of 2007, the field of stem cell research is experiencing rapid evolution. A series of important scientific discoveries may help to ease one of the biggest obstacles it faces: the ethical and political controversy surrounding the need to destroy human embryos in order to obtain human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The latest significant advance, announced in November, involved ways to turn mature human skin cells into cells that behave like hESCs, in the hopes that these cells could be a viable alternative source of hESCs. While these discoveries will take years to sort out and transform into effective medicines, the field’s rapid progress is already increasing researchers’ demand for cutting-edge life sciences tools.
At the same time, more money is flowing into the field. Tallying R&D spending on stem cell research is tough, because it’s such a fragmented, complex niche, bogged down by government restrictions. Governments are the biggest source of funding, but since 2001, the U.S. federal government, which has the world’s largest R&D budget, has forbidden use of its money on hESC research, with the exception of a few specified cell lines. The National Institutes of Health, however, allocates about $600 million a year for animal and human stem cell research. And while the government prohibition had a temporary negative impact in the United States, alternative sources of funding–state governments and private donors–are emerging, which in turn is spurring a boom in supportive tools. California has the largest and most established program: it is setting aside $3 billion over 10 years to fund hESC research–and other states are organizing similar, albeit smaller, efforts. In addition, in September 2007, the federal government said it would fund research on ways of obtaining hESC cells that don’t destroy embryos.
Stem cells are of great interest to scientists because they are plentiful, unspecialized, and can be programmed to grow into many kinds of specialized cells. Human stem cells come from several sources, including organ tissues, umbilical cords, and, even amniotic fluid. Of all stem cells, hESCs are by far the most versatile because they are the only kind that can grow into any human cell type. However, hESCs are the most controversial because the process of creating them destroys human embryos. Adult and umbilical cord stem cells, which are also being studied, are easier to obtain and not the target of political and ethical battles, but they are more limited in what they can do.