Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Chasing Life: Stem Cells and Aging
By John Bonifield
CNN Medical News
I peered through the window of an airlock into what might be one of the most controversial rooms in America. At the Geron Company in California, stackable incubators store human embryonic stem cells that are swimming in nutrients - the kind of cells that critics say are grown only by destroying life. The room isn't large, but it doesn't take a large room to grow something as small as a cell. And it's the vast number of cells this room is designed to grow that makes it unique. "What we have here is the world's first and probably the world's only GMP, fully-scaled production plant to manufacture embryonic stem cells," Tom Okarma, Geron's CEO, said on a tour of the company he runs.
How these cells will be used in the future is one of the most contested issues in medicine. In the United States, Geron is positioning itself to be among the first to test stem cell therapies in human clinical trials. It intends to ask permission from the Food and Drug Administration to test a spinal cord injury treatment by the end of this year. In paralyzed rats, it's improved mobility.
We went to the Geron Company for our reporting on Chasing Life , Dr. Gupta's new hourlong program for CNN's Special Investigations Unit that examines the keys to healthy aging. Our investigation also took us to a clinic in Russia where a doctor injects less controversial adult stem cells into patients to keep them young, he says - a claim no research supports. The potential of human embryonic stem cells is that they can transform into more specific human cells, but they can be obtained only by destroying an embryo; Geron uses embryos that were destined for destruction or being frozen forever and would never be implanted to develop into a child. Ethicists swings both ways. In investigating advances into how we age, I wanted to know how these cells might be used. Geron's Okarma said stem cells aren't the fountain of youth, but they will be the pills of tomorrow.
"The whole object here is not to change the lifespan - the biological limit of life. Stem cells are not going to do that," Okarma said. "What we hope stem cells will do is increase the health span - the fraction of our time on earth that is spent in good health."
Dr. Sanjay Gupta investigates stem cells in his new book "Chasing Life," available in stores now, and on CNN on Saturday and Sunday at 8 and 11 p.m. ET.
It was strange listening to Okarma describe how we generally die. We have one or perhaps two organ systems that because of disease or injury begin to malfunction first. They tend to be critical systems. The brain. The heart. The lungs. The liver. The kidneys. It's an inexorable decline that he says stem cells may one day prevent to keep us functioning up until the end of life.
How do you think stem cells will impact how we age? What would life be like at 80 or 90 without the need for caregivers? If we could create cells that would restore the function of critical organs as they are impacted by disease, how would it free us from the burden of premature death? Is it worth the destruction of an embryo?
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