Wednesday, November 21, 2007
New stem cells: what they could mean to you
You've read the news about stem cells and the experts' comments. "It's the beginning of the end of the controversy," is how Dr. James Thomson put it. He ought to know because he created the first human embryonic stem cell line nearly 10 years ago and led one of the two research teams that developed new stem cells from mature skin cells.
I've covered stem cells for about seven years now. In that time, I have received hundreds of news releases from researchers and companies touting their discovery of "adult stem cells that work just as well as embryonic stem cells, but without all the controversy." Some extremely legit - like Dr. Helen Blau's research at Stanford that turned nerve cells into different nerve cells. And some less proved. Remember "stem cells from fat"?
Until now adult stem cells - cells taken from skin or bone marrow or the heart - were able to be coaxed into only a few other types of cells. Embryonic stem cells, taken from four or five day old existing embryos, have the ability to turn into any cell in the body. But that destroys the embryo and brings on controversy. Creating brand new, personalized embryonic stem cells still hasn't been done in humans. The process to create them is cloning, and that leads to another huge controversy altogether.
Legitimate researchers on the adult and embryonic stem cell side have agreed on two points for a long time: Politics are interfering with good research and research on both types of cells must continue. Tuesday's breakthrough with adult stem cells did not change that. We might find that those created in the new way work better for certain diseases and embryonic cells for others.
But the politics and limited funding have severely slowed progress in the field. Six years ago, President Bush decided to allow very limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. People who were sick then and are still waiting for a cure know how slow progress has been.
The speed of progress with stem cells should now change dramatically. For more than a year many labs have been working on creating these types of new cells, ever since Dr. Shinya Yamanaka published a paper last year showing what these cells can do in mice. Now that research by the teams of Yamanaka and Thomson shows that human cells can be reprogrammed too, many more labs will want to work on this. Federal funding for adult stem cell research is easier to come by.
"This opens this up to a huge field," according to Dr. John Gearhart, a long-time stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He says now researchers "don't have to learn how to work with embryonic stem cells" because it's a simple process to create these new stem cells. "This is going to become a very common technology."
What Thomson and Yamanaka still need to figure out is how closely these new stem cells resemble those taken from embryos. Thomson expects that will take another year or two.
Are these new cells safe to be transplanted into humans? That still has to be determined. So it's unlikely we'll see humans treated with these cells any time soon.
According to Dr. George Dalay, director of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, "No one knows when, if ever, human stem cells will be placed into patients," but this breakthrough makes "stem cells as tools for research immediately valuable." Scientists will use these stem cells to study diseases in a petri dish. Drug research is another area where these new stem cells will have immediate application.
Both types of research will continue - controversial and non-controversial. Without the knowledge gained from the last decade of embryonic stem cell research, these new stem cells couldn't have been created Thomson told reporters.
And as Gearhart told me, "I think there was a small group of us (stem cell researchers) years ago, who thought the information we would get from stem cells would be more important than the embryonic stem cells themselves."
It may still take a few years to get actual results in people from these tiny cells. But progess should be made a little faster now.
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