China closes stem-cell gap with the West
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China's aggressive drive to close the gap with the West in stem-cell research is paying off after five years of heavy investment in a branch of science free of the tight regulatory constraints and intense debate over moral issues that hamper experimental work elsewhere.
A decade ago, China had 37 stem-cell research papers published by reputable journals. By 2008, it was 1,116, the China Medical Tribune said. It now ranks fifth in the world in both the number of stem-cell patents filed and research papers published. And its numbers are growing faster than in any other nation.
While research into embryonic and fetal stem cells sparked public controversy in the West, Beijing is charging ahead at a full speed. The government has poured billions of yuan into the research hoping to find innovative cures to chronic and deadly illnesses such as heart disease, liver failure and Parkinson's disease. 'China is aggressively investing in biomedical sciences in general, and particularly stem-cell research. Not only will it serve as a way to flex its muscle as a technological powerhouse but also a means to ultimately bring forth a knowledge-based economy,' said Professor Ronald Li, director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Consortium at the University of Hong Kong.
'As in other scientific disciplines, the quality of stem-cell research in China varies quite significantly. However, there are high-quality works being done and some have been published in high-profile international peer-reviewed journals. Overall, the trend is clearly on an upward trajectory.'
Although the trend is encouraging, the fever for stem-cell research and treatment also has problems.
Many mainland hospitals are not waiting for clinical approval. They are offering stem-cell injections for diseases such as cerebral palsy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease. The ballyhoo is attracting thousands of desperate foreigners ready to pay for treatments that are untested and successes are sketchy at best.
And then there is the moral issue. Unlike in the West, few people ask where those stem cells are from. Many mainland researchers and doctors profess not to know the source. But a reading of articles in mainland journals leaves little doubt that many cells are from induced abortions, harvested from fetuses aged from five weeks to six months.
The price, in yuan, of an injection of stem cells from the brain of a fetus offered at the Naval General Hospital of the PLA in Beijing