U-M to Press for More Stem Cell Research for Minorities

Kim Kozlowski, Detroit News, February 1, 2010

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Sean Morrison, director of U-M’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, regards the lack of diversity as a social injustice and expects U-M to pioneer change in this area of research, perhaps by prioritizing embryos donated by underrepresented groups when creating stem cell lines.

Embryonic stem cell researchers derive cells from human embryos created through in-vitro fertilization used by infertile couples. In-vitro patients are disproportionately white, Morrison said. {snip}

“We think embryonic stem cell research has the potential to change the future of medicine,” said Morrison, who led the study that was published in the last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“If that’s true, we have to make sure the research is done using diverse embryonic stem cell lines to ensure we don’t accidentally develop treatment with embryonic stem cell lines that only work in certain groups.”

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Mostly European origin

Before voters approved the constitutional amendment allowing the research, Morrison wondered about the diversity of existing stem cell lines. He and his colleagues examined the genetic material in each of the 47 most commonly used stem cell lines. Since everyone is 99.9 percent genetically identical, Morrison said, they looked at the 0.1 percent that determines differences. They teamed up with Noah Rosenberg, a U-M population geneticist who pioneered methods to infer population origin.

Their discovery: The majority of the stem cell lines they studied originated from people of Northern and Western European descent. Some of the lines represented people of Middle Eastern or Southern European ancestry, and two hailed from East Asia.

But none of the lines represented people descending from Africa, the Pacific Islands or from populations indigenous to America.

“We were surprised at just how little diversity there was,” Morrison said.

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But that started to shift in 1987, when women and minorities began to lobby for change. The National Institutes of Health published a policy that encouraged investigators to include women and minorities when studying human subjects, said Vivian Pinn, director of the NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health.

Concerns came up in the early 1990s that researchers were not embracing the policy, so in 1993, legislators made it a law.

Since then, NIH-funded clinical trials have included more women and minorities: In 2008, there were 15.4 million participants in 11,000 clinical trials. Of the 15.4 million participants, 60 percent were women and 28.6 percent were minorities, according to an NIH report monitoring adherence to the law.

“It is very important for people of all colors and cultures to benefit from research funded by public dollars,” Pinn said.

Scientific ramifications

It’s critical because different biological and cultural differences can affect preventions, interventions and treatments discovered in clinical trials, said Marie Swanson, chairwoman of the Department of Public Health at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

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BiDil, a heart drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2005 specifically for African-Americans, is an example. The approval followed two trials in which the drug did not show a benefit among most subjects, but suggested it was effective in black patients. {snip}

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“One’s genetic background influences so many things, including disease susceptibility and response to medications–both positively and negatively,” Mosher said. “As stem cells continue to grow in importance for understanding and treating disease, it’s plausible that their genetic background and the diversity between different lines will manifest in similar ways.”

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