GE Plans to Use Human Embryonic Stem Cells, Not Lab Rats, to Test Drug Toxicity

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM
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(CNSNews.com) - GE Healthcare, the medical research subsidiary of General Electric, has formed a partnership with a leading U.S. biotech company to develop products based on human embryonic stem cells that can be used to develop new drugs.
 
On June 30, GE Healthcare and Geron Corporation announced a multi-year alliance where Geron will provide GE scientists with an undisclosed amount of human embryonic stem cells.
 
The human cells will be used “to develop and commercialize cellular assay products derived from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) for use in drug discovery, development and toxicity screening,” according to a news release.
 
GE Healthcare, which is based in Britain, hopes that human embryonic testing will spare lab rats from having potentially toxic drugs in or on the animals.
 
"This could replace, to a large extent, animal trials," Konstantin Fiedler, general manager of cell technologies at GE Healthcare, told Reuters.
 
"Once you have human cells and you can get them in a standardized way, like you get right now, your lab rats in a standardized way, you can actually do those experiments on those cells," he added.
 
Cells derived from Human Embryonic Stem Cells “have similar attributes to their counterparts in the body, and can therefore be used to predict many pharmacological characteristics of a drug candidate,” according to the Geron/GE news release.
 
Geron said the cells to be used under the pact with GE were derived from embryonic stem cells that were listed on the National Institutes of Health Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry. The reigstry contains stem-cell lines approved under policies established by the Bush administration in 2001.
 
"We acknowledge the considerable debate and take very seriously the ethical and societal issues associated with research using stem cells derived from embryonic or fetal tissue,” the companies said. “We conduct our research in an ethically and scientifically responsible manner."
 
Dr. David Prentice, senior fellow for life science at the Family Research Council, told CNSNews.com, that embryos must be killed before stem cells can be derived from them for research purposes.
 
“Human embryonic stem cell research is ethically irresponsible and scientifically unworthy, as well as useless for patients,” Prentice said.
 
Prentice explained that General Electric’s optimism in saving lab animals from testing by using hESCs is also largely unfounded.
 
“There is always going to be a problem on trying to rely just on cultured cells to do drug testing,” Prentice explained.
 
The problem, he said, is that many drugs are metabolized in the liver and other parts of the body and those metabolized substances then become the active ingredients of the drugs.
 
“Treating just cells in culture will give you some idea of toxicity or perhaps effectiveness on a certain cell type, but will not actually work for the whole organ, or the entire system, or the organism,” Prentice said. “So this is not going to replace all animal testing.
 
Prentice also pointed out that most of the research involving embryonic stem cells thus far has produced no valid therapies, while successful therapies for several diseases and conditions are already in place using adult stem cells, he said.
 
Neither GE Healthcare nor Geron Corporation returned calls from CNSNews.com.