Stem Cell Research in Hearing – The Politics Part I

In the USA, stem cell research of any kind is quite political, particularly in the United States. This week’s Hearing International looks at the politics and direction of stem cell research and next week will consider the specific research in the area of hearing.  Questions for audiologists worldwide are:  Can sensorineural hearing loss be cured with stem cells?  Will this put audiologists out of business?  Will this put hearing aid manufacturers out of business?  and probably many others.

Since Romney is a Republican it would generally follow that he would oppose stem cell research, while Obama a Democrat will continue funding for this research as he has approved and even increased funding in the US for stem cell research during his administration.  Thus, it is easy to assume that as the US presidential election goes so go the research funds for stem cell projects.  Let’s take a good look at the politics of this issue as the opposition seems to be mainly in the US and not other countries.  In fact other countries are where most of the research is going on, and that is obvious in the newest Nobel Prize winners in Medicine from Britain and Japan.

Blendon, Kim & Benson (2012) present that funding for embryonic stem cell research — which scientists hope one day will contribute to cures for ailments including spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes (as well as sensorineural hearing loss)– has been a political flash point in the US for more than a decade.  In 2001, former President George W. Bush froze federal funding on research that would require destroying embryos to create new stem cell lines.  In 2009, President Barack Obama lifted the restrictions, and federal courts upheld his action.  It seems that this research follows party lines.  In one poll of Americans in 2005, 62% said they believed that medical research involving stem cells obtained from human embryos was morally acceptable; 30% said it was not.  In another poll, 55% said the government should fund research that would use newly created embryonic stem cells. Current polls, Gardner (2010) indicate that positive opinions of stem cell research are up significantly to 72% favoring and 12% opposed.

Romney’s position is not as hard and fast as that of George W. Bush. He states, “I am in favor of stem cell research. I am not in favor of creating new human embryos through cloning.” This suggests that there would probably be some stem cell research under Romney and not necessarily the typical Republican position.  So, as the election season in the US progresses, there will be more discussion. However, stem cells do not appear to be a major issue this election season, which deals much more with the economy, national debt, deficit spending, and the move toward socialism, etc.

While the debate and the elections go on here in the US, the world is involved in stem cell research.  As can be seen from the map, the countries in brown are actively researching the benefits of stem cells for various diseases and even spinal cord injuries.  These countries there is not much political debate as to whether the good outweighs the bad.  There are international societies for stem cell research, such as the ISSCR, the International Society of Stem Cell Research, which has published patient manuals  in 9 different languages for those considering stem cell therapy.

The promise of stem cell research is so great that two scientists from different generations recently won the Nobel Prize in medicine  for their groundbreaking discovery that cells in the body can be reprogrammed into completely different kinds–work that reflects the mechanism behind cloning and offers an alternative to using embryonic stem cells.  The work of the British researcher John Gurdon (left) and the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka (right) – who was born the year Gurdon made his discovery – holds hope for treating diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes by growing customized tissue for transplant.  And it has spurred a new generation of laboratory studies into other illnesses, including schizophrenia, which may lead to new treatments.

Basically, Gurdon, 79, and Yamanaka, 50, showed how to make the equivalent of embryonic stem cells without the ethical questions those very versatile cells pose, a promise scientists are now scrambling to fulfill.  Once created, these “blank slate” cells can be nudged toward developing into other cell types. Skin cells can ultimately be transformed into brain cells, for example.  “Everyone who works on developmental biology and on the understanding of disease mechanisms will applaud these excellent and clear choices for the Nobel Prize,” said John Hardy, professor of Neuroscience at University College London.“Countless labs’ work builds on the breakthroughs they have pioneered.”  Just last week, scientists reported turning skin cells from mice into eggs that produced baby mice, a possible step toward new fertility treatments.

Congratulations to Drs. Gurdon and Yamanaka on their Nobel Prize. Next week Hearing International will investigate the specifics of stem cell research for hearing and the prospects for a cure of sensorineural hearing loss.

About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.