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The Power of Positive Thinking

Jonas Frisén may have helped deflate the hype surrounding stem cell research, but now he�s rallying against the backlash.

Investors, politicians, and entrepreneurs are increasingly confused and frustrated by the protracted political and ethical debate over stem cell science. But imagine how the scientists themselves must feel. Their field has been under almost constant assault for three years from disparate opponents, including the pope, the U.S. Congress, environmentalists, and reproductive-rights activists. Like a lab sample pressed within a glass slide, stem cell researchers have been under such pressure and withering scrutiny that it�s amazing that so many have stayed in the field. Like most scientists, they�ve kept their concerns to themselves. And that�s part of the problem with the stem cell controversy: its advocates have grown silent.

Jonas Frisén; Copyright © 2003 Acumen Sciences, LLC All Rights Reserved

Swedish stem cell researcher Jonas Frisén, M.D., Ph.D., used to be that way, too. But no longer. A professor of developmental and molecular biology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and one of the best and brightest stem cell scientists around, Dr. Frisén could also become one of the most important in his field. If anyone has a lot to lose from the stem cell political firestorm, or a reason to let it frustrate him, it�s this man. It may seem hard to imagine that a celebrated, well-funded stem cell researcher, who should be insulated from everyday politics and funding hassles, could possibly be frustrated about anything—until one considers what�s happened to this field during the past year.

Bad vibes
There is a growing sense in the press and among investors that stem cell science is just another overhyped medical technology. In the past several months, the media, which not long ago seemed entranced by the science and politics of stem cells, now seems burned by or bored with the story. Nature, the New York Times, and the Scientist have all run articles that could easily be headlined “Stem Cells: Hype or Hope?”

Further doubts about stem cell research have come from academia, where such science is sometimes seen as an upstart branch of developmental biology—a novelty in microbiology and neuroscience circles. Even the cocktail chatter at biotech conferences has become tepid about the promise of stem cells, if not outright resigned to its failure.