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Stem cell hype could trigger backlash

A warning from Professor Winston

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A leading fertility expert in the UK believes that the benefits of stem cells have been overhyped by some scientists, and will warn of a backlash from the 'right-to-life' movement when reality does not measure up to expectations.

Professor Robert Winston, professor of fertility at Imperial College, is set to call for researchers to be realistic about the challenges they face in developing useful clinical applications from stem cells.

He will tell delegates at a British Association for the Advancement of Science event in Dublin:

"I view the current wave of optimism about embryonic stem cells with growing suspicion. Embryonic stem cells replicate very slowly in culture, and it may well be that in the culture systems where you want to grow them the selective pressure is in favour of the faster growing cells, the ones of course which are most likely to be genetically abnormal," he said.

He is also expected to say that while stem cell research is one of the most exciting areas in biology right now, it is unlikely to benefit patients for many years to come.

He says that despite this, in 2001 when legislation was being passed that would allow stem cell research in the UK, lobby groups had led some parliamentarians to believe that a major clinical application was just around the corner.

"When disappointment sets in, as may be possible, we can expect a massive backlash by the 'right to life' groups who are always so ready to pounce when they perceive a chink in our arguments," his speech goes on.

Meanwhile, in the current online edition of Nature: Genetics, US researchers warn that stem cells accumulate changes in their genetic make-up, over time. Some of the changes resemble those see in cancerous cells, and the researchers are not sure what the effect of these changes will be. Read more on this in the John Hopkins Medical Institutions press release here. ®

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