No announcement yet.

Norway: The stem cell research potential and politics

  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

    Norway: The stem cell research potential and politics

    Here is an article written by me after a stem cell research conference we had over here 27. March 2006. I have been working to have this happen for a time and was lucky to get two of our most renowned researchers over to give lectures. I also managed to have a politician over from over government. The audience was also very pleased after the conference because of the quality of the lectures. Sometimes it is good to listen to the source of this research because newspaper articles sometimes are not as accurate as we want them to be. Professor Stefan Krauss discussed some very interesting aspects with respect to treatments of spinal cord injuries SCI. Below I will try to sum up as best I can and please excuse my English if my wording is not hundred percent. I have translated this from my original article. Leif

    The stem cell research potential and politics
    Conference, stem cell research in Haugesund 27th March 2006
    Article by: Leif

    The Norwegian Handicap organisation arranged a stem cell research conference 27th March 2006 in Haugesund.

    The conference was arranged so that it started with the basic principles regarding this research by Professor Steinar Funderud from the Radium Hospital (Univerisity in Oslo). Further, Professor Stefan Krauss from the National Hospital (Rikshospitalet, University of Olso) guided us into the more specific details regarding stem cell research and for his example here he used the spinal cord injury scenario with the mechanisms in play and possible future treatments for SCI. At the end of the session politician Jan Bohler (the labour party) from the Health- and care committee, our parliament and the government explained the governments view and politics for this research and also what kind of political tools they want to use to stimulate this research in the best possible way.

    Below I will give a summary of the conference as best I can and communicate what the researchers and the politicians told us with some comments by me.

    Introduction: Today in Norway the researchers are only allowed to perform research on adult stem cells, this is cells from born humans. It could be stem cells from umbilical cord blood, bone marrow and the brain to give some examples. There are approximately 20 different stem cell types in a human body. In Norway as of now it is illegal for researchers to do research on human embryonic stem cells (hESC). This is cells we can find in fertilized eggs. In our fertilization clinics there are many of those eggs and many of those are surplus eggs and will be thrown away after a while. Only in Norway it is estimated there are 15.000 such eggs. As we are speaking the government are working on a laws proposal to change the Biotechnology law to allow research on surplus embryos under regulated conditions. The reason we want to allow research on embryonic stem cells is because researchers believe those cells have a greater potential for i.e. therapies, this in light of that they can become all the cell types we have in our bodies.

    Stem cell research in general.

    Professor Steinar Funderud had a great lecture where he explained the basics and the general aspects surrounding this research, he explained what was going on in our country and worldwide for that matter. He also started his lecture by discussing and explaining about somatic stem cells, this is stem cells from born humans also named as adult stem cells, he also talked about the different kind there is of them. He discussed blood stem cells which basically creates new blood stem cells and blood cells. Further he discussed muscle stem cells which become new muscles. He also talked about bone, intestine, umbilical cord and brain stem cells. Basically all the stem cells we have in our bodies that are important for us to be able to renew our cell types and live. Another example was also skin and the skin stem cells which are renewing the skin continually.

    Funderud also explained the situation for adult stem cells and that they only can exist and develop to functionally cells in their own environment in an interaction with the surroundings in our body. He explained that one of the challenges for the researchers was to copy this development in their laboratories since the cells then are cultivated outside of the body (in vitro).

    Transdifferentiation was also mentioned. This is an idea for a technique where adult stem cells, when they are exposed for an outside stimulus in the laboratories, can develop to all kinds of tissue other then they was originally supposed to become. This is a technique which especially the opponents of embryonic stem cell research have advocated for as the best path to create all kinds of cells. Professor Funderud said the possibilities here were exaggerated.

    Embryonic stem cells: Funderud explained some of the techniques the researchers in their laboratories are using to create embryonic stem cells. He explained that surplus fertilized eggs form the fertilization clinics can be used. After fertilization the egg will go through several cell divisions and after a week it will become a blastocyst. It is inside the blastocyst we will find the cells, 100-200 cells, and each of them has the potential to develop to all the cells in a human body. It is those cells which are named embryonic stem cells.

    Funderud also touched base on the techniques the laboratories are using to create the different cell types they want from embryonic stem cells. He talked about differentiation which is to “push” the cells to become the cell types they want. Embryonic stem cells are from start of undifferentiated cells with the ability for self renewal and differentiation. He also explained about the cancer problematic with respect to this, this because embryonic stem cells which are not differentiated before they are implanted into a patient can cause cancer, and then especially a type of cancer which is named Teratoma. The researchers are aware of this and are working on this challenge. – We must understand when it comes to research on this level, one of the issues is to find out of things and find ways to avoid problems and to find solutions at the end; this is the challenge and the goal.

    Therapies: Professor Funderud discussed the different kind of therapy possibilities and also the problems surrounding the rejection of cells which the body can look upon as strangers. This is also named Graft Versus Host (GvH). This can happen as a reaction if the implanted cells don’t have the same coding and match (HLA etc.) as the person it is implanted into.

    One method which has been discussed to overcome this problem is known from the Dolly experiments, Funderud explained. This was an experiment where the researcher Ian Wilmut from the U.K. cloned the sheep Dolly. The experiment is known as “Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer” (SCNT). In short what they did was to take an egg and remove the nucleus. Instead of the removed nucleus the researchers took a nucleus from a cell in and adult (this can be from different cells) and placed this nucleus in the egg. Such an egg with a “new” nucleus can be tricked to believe it is fertilized and can thereby go through the same development stages as a normally fertilized egg. If this egg is implanted into a uterus and are allowed to develop the offspring will have the same genetic code as the individual the nucleus was taken from. In Norway this type of cloning is not wanted. This is also named reproductive cloning. On the other hand, instead of implanting the egg with the “new” nucleus into a uterus the researchers can continue to develop this egg to become a blastocyst in a laboratory, the researcher will then get genetic like cells like the individual the nucleus was taken from. In theory those cells can then be used on this individual, and then the immune system will not reject them. This is also named therapeutic cloning. In addition to all this, Professor Funderud also discussed the many problems Dolly had. – This is in light of this technique is relatively new and needs to be explored more. He also explained a little bit about the hereditary – Genome – where we have both the “active” kind and the “sleeping” kind and the challenges that lie here which have to be solved. Much research still has to be done, but some of this is what the researchers want to study to be able to understand all the connections and thereby the whole picture.

    Stem cells in regenerative medicine: Funderud explained furthermore, like it is today our body cells can not become all kinds of cells. – Those stem cells we have in adult humans have functions such as self renewal in our bodies. In some relations this is not satisfying. Researchers want to study this in more detail so that they can for example increase the speed of this self renewal. He also believes in future therapies where we can create new medications because of this research and also that injections can become a method of future therapies. In the future it can also be possible to stimulate the cells in our own body to repair damages much better than the body itself can do today, says Funderud. The body just needs a little bit help.

    Possible future treatments with examples for Spinal Cord Injuries.

    Professor Stefan Krauss continued with another great lecture and started to discuss and explain the interaction between industry, economics and politics. He explained how closely connected this is and also explained especially the aims for the pharmaceutical industry, their main goals is to earn money. It is also important to have them on the team, but in Norway there are strong connections between Academia and the State. This connection can have other aims then the private companies and can give great return. Above that, it is important that everybody plays on the same team.

    Professor Krauss then talked a bit about Parkinson’s disease where he pointed out that this disease could end up to become relatively easy to treat since we here are dealing with one cell type which is in an “unbalance”. The focus for this treatment could thereby be better aimed against those specific cells, and he also explained that injections from a stem cell treatment could be a possible treatment.

    Furthermore he talked about diabetes. He said that after all this is a disease we as of today have treatments for, and a typical patient is not dying because of Diabetes. He also explained when it comes to diabetes; stem cell treatments could cure the patients in the future. This is for diabetes type 1.

    Krauss also touched base with hearth problems and explained researchers have managed to make hearth muscles with human embryonic stem cells in animal studies. He also showed a short video clip of those muscles in action.

    Krauss then went on to explain about the complexity of the spinal cord. He first explained how important it was with pure research to understand the details. He explained it was not enough to just think overall and in general, and said to be able to understand the whole they had to get down into the details. He took an example from aviation and explained when engineers was designing and constructing a new aeroplane they could not just only plan the whole as such, but here as well the engineers had to dive into the smallest details to be able to have the aeroplane into the air and fly in a safe way. If not it wouldn’t fly.

    He explained that the spinal cord was made of neurons and axons. He explained about sensor-neurons (sensations signals from the body to the brain), motor-neurons (signals from the brain to for example a muscle in the leg) and inter-neurons (the connections between the neurons in the spinal cord). He also talked about the myelin sheath, the protective coating of nerve fiber where Schwann cells or to be more precise in a spinal cord Oligodentrocytes cells which are the ones that makes myelin and plays and important role. He explained that loss of this "insulation" (myelin sheath) on the nerve fibres and loss of neurons would result in a Spinal Cord Injury.

    With respect to this and the interaction and the complexity in a spinal cord he also said it was naïve to believe and think that just to inject some blood stem cells into the injury site in a injured spinal cord should restore functions.

    He then explained what was happening during a spinal cord injury. As known there is a reaction that starts by the body and the body’s immune system just after an injury. This is both good and bad he explained. In the central nervous system (CNS) there is something named the “blood barrier”, this is a barrier to prevent blood to get in contact with nerve tissue like neurons. Neurons are not able to live in blood. To take care of all this the body starts to create a glial scar to prevent this contact. It is astrocytes (glial cells) that create this barrier, but in an injury they will also due to this prevent nerve connections. This is valid in the early traumatic spinal cord injury stage. This will also at the same time make it so that other nearby cells will be transformed to this barrier.

    Krauss also talked about the proteins which blocks and controls nerve connections like the Nogo group. In a healthy spinal cord this is some of the mechanisms and proteins that control the connections between the neurons so that the connection making process will not go crazy because this is definitely not wanted. On the other hand in a possible stem cell treatment situation it could be desirable to “turn off” this function for a time to be able to stimulate to new nerve connections and neural outgrowth. Krauss also explained a little bit about Rho which also plays a role.

    Where can we find the cells that have the treatment potential?

    Professor Krauss explained that in a possible treatment the source for such cells is from human embryonic stem cells, this in light of they can become any cell in a body and also can be cultivated in large quantities and almost infinite. Those cells also have the characteristics that they “easily” can be transformed and differentiated into neurons. This has also been done in laboratories where researchers have made both nerve cells and “insulation” in animal studies. Fetal cells (from aborted fetuses) could also be a good source. It is allowed to do research on fetal cells in Norway which is a bit ironic since it is for the time being illegal to research on human embryonic stem cells. Krauss also talked about using adult stem cells for this purpose, but he said we had to be sober here and understand the limitations for those cells and also explained that those cells could not do what we wanted – to create nerve tissue.

    Krauss also explained about Olfactory Ensheating cells (OEC), also know as Olfactory Ensheating Glial cells (OEGC) which can be collected from the nose, more precisely the olfactory bulb. This is not true stem cells since they could not reproduce themselves, which is a requirement for stem cells. But nevertheless those cells have also been proven in animal studies to regenerate some spinal cord injuries. Those cells can also help angiogenesis, the creation of new blood vessels which is also important in the injury site in an injured spinal cord.

    In addition talked Krauss about Neural stem cells. They can be taken from the brain from born humans by usage of several techniques, i.e. during brain surgeries. He also believed that down the road those cells a few years research from now could create neurons.

    Professor Krauss said that more research was required. He explained that it is not necessarily the stem cells itself that will lead towards a treatment, but also the sum of what researchers are learning by doing this. He explains he can see and believed in a combination therapy. He also explained that researchers today knows many of the mechanisms in play in a spinal cord, he also referred to the USA where scientists have made motor-neurons from human embryonic stem cells. He closed his lecture by saying researchers also needs to know more about the signal in play in the injury site and also the signals which controls the surroundings and the environment in a injured spinal cord.

    Is it desirable to use human embryonic stem cells for this research; I mean we can not afford not to – or have the right to – not to use this cell system which has so many areas of applications, said Stefan Krauss.

    The Politics.

    Jan Bohler from the Health- and care committee started his lecture by discussing what politicians outside of Norway were doing to stimulate this research. He talked about California in the USA where they have had a popular vote on the embryonic stem cell research issue, the citizens wanted this research and as a result the politicians there granted the $3 Billion US dollar funding. He also talked about the U.K. and the big money they also allocate for this research. Tony Blair has also previously stated that the U.K. shall be leading in this science field. Jan Bohler also explained about an earlier project in Sweden where the Swedes made a research society just over the border. Back then he also wanted Norway to join in but due to the restrictive view on this science from some politicians this failed. Bohler also explained how important it is for Norway to be a part of this new biotechnological revolution and not loose ground as we currently are doing because of the last government’s restrictive politics.

    Furthermore he explained and talked about patents and how dangerous it was if countries like Norway did not participate in this research. This has to do with the organization of our country with the Academia closely connected to the State and the possibilities that lays her. When it comes to patents he says there is a great danger like private companies can patent many important things in this field, and this down the road can lock Norway into a situation we don’t want to be in when it comes to this research. He was warning us that we can have Microsoft like situations in this field if we are not playing our cards correct. He also continued to explain how important it is for Norway as soon as possible finds its niches in the biotechnology field and stem cell science and airs the question how the situation would have been if we did not take part in the technological revolution in the last century. He also talks about that many sees the biotechnology to become this centuries big revolution and how important is to get a foothold here. Jan Bohler also said that one of the important jobs for politicians was to have visions – Bohler had many visions, he was a true visionary politician – we need more politicians like Bohler.

    He listed some measures that have to be put in place:
    • Remove the exiting law restrictions on this research. The government will have a new law proposal ready for voting this coming fall so that a new law can be in place 01.01.07. There is a majority in favour for this both in the parliament and the government. – For the time being he could not say too much about the necessary funding that will follow this new law change, but they will fund as this moves on.
    • We must use the existing stem cell centre and stimulate the research groups there and also the Academia (the collaborating universities). This will ensure us that we will have control over this research in a way so that it will benefit the country and the individual citizen.
    • We also have to create a foundation and a fund for this research. Within the field of biotechnology he says it often can take years before it pays of. Due to this it can be difficult to get investment and investors from external private companies and to have them to join in. He says this is important because we will also need private companies and companies with visions that can take this research one step further. To stimulate such companies Bohler says such a fund also is important.
    Jan Bohler concludes his lecture by saying that the road towards the treatments is the most important thing. If we can see a possibility for an illness or a type of injury that can be treated within 1.5 year, then we have to follow this lead. The same, if we can see a possibility for a treatment which will take 2-5 or 15 years to solve, we shall also follow this lead. – It is important to think in short terms and long terms in this question.

    With this new government all of them were optimistic for the future. Jan Bohler said finally we are on the right track. The Professors, Steinar Funderud and Stefan Krauss were also likewise optimistic for the future since this ban on this research now will be removed. They also unison agreed that they believed in a treatment for many illnesses and injuries like spinal cord injuries. They could not say when those treatments would be here, but I believe that is up to all of us. – It depends how much we wants this research to take place, and here I believe we all agree; the researchers, the politician and us. – We just have to push and move forward to have this research to take place as fast as possible to be able to help people which are suffering and dying

    Questions from the audience.

    After each lecture there were also possibilities to ask questions from the audience. The questions varied to be directed towards the technical aspects regarding this research and also of a political character. At the end, what had the greatest impact on me was a young girl with a spinal cord injury at the cervical level sitting in an electrical wheelchair and here continuously questions where she called for determined focus and funding for this research to help here and others in similar situations. I remember here very well when she raised the question - Where is the ethics? - Isn’t it more important to help living people like her for a better life then the consideration for some cells frozen in a fertilization clinic? I agree with her, and I believe the previous government should have been here to answer her question. I also believe that the few restrictive peoples opposing this research should listen more to peoples like her. – As the discussion continues peoples are suffering.

    - I understand her very well, I am also spinal cord injured.

    Thank you to Professor Steinar Funderud, Professor Stefan Krauss and Jan Bohler for taking the trip over to us and explaining for us the possibilities in this research.


    Last edited by Leif; 29 Mar 2006, 12:08 PM.

    Some more pictures

    A few more pic's


      Thanks Leif
      That is a very interesting and comprehensive overview of the situation in Norway, and the broader picture too.
      Now that you have your new and sympathetic Labour government, you have to keep them in power! And they have to keep your scientists from going elsewhere. It seems that Norway is now fortunate to have key people in position for continuing the research that will benefit SCIs.


        Good job Leif!
        In God we trust; all others bring data. - Edwards Deming


          Carbar and Paolo, thanks. The scientists will not go anywhere. In fact our researc teams are very international, some teams have 70-80 percent of the researchers coming from other countryes like the rest of Europe and also the USA. These days some of the research teams also are advertising for several more researchers, and more are wanted later on when this new law is in place as I understand. We have many good and determined researchers and now they also want to look into embryonic stem cells and possible threatements for spinal cord injuries. I might also get an invitation later on during this spring to go and have a speak to our parliament regarding this research, but that is not settled yet. Leif
          Last edited by Leif; 31 Mar 2006, 4:55 AM.