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Reflecting On A Decade Of Stem Cell Research

Some say they hold the potential for medical miracles. Others claim they are a moral abomination. Either way, human embryonic stem cells captured headlines during the past decade in a way few areas of scientific research have before.

There is no question that embryonic stem cells have remarkable properties. They can grow indefinitely in the lab, and they can turn into any cell type in the body. But to obtain them, a human embryo must be destroyed.

Jessica Dias, an associate research specialist at University of Wisconsin in Madison, removes embryonic stem cells from deep freeze to be thawed before being worked on.
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Above: Jessica Dias, an associate research specialist at University of Wisconsin in Madison, removes embryonic stem cells from deep freeze to be thawed before being worked on.

Scientists first showed that it was possible to grow embryonic stem cells in 1998.

Under normal circumstances, other scientists would have rushed to study the new cells. But because of congressional restrictions, federal money can't be used for research that harms an embryo.

President Bill Clinton decided it was OK to use federal money to study embryonic stem cells once they were growing in the lab, so long as private money was used to create them.

When President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, one of the first things he did was to put that decision on hold so he could reconsider it. In August of that year, the new president came to a rather surprising decision:

"I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decision has already been made," he said.

The existing stem cell lines the president was talking about were the dozen or so lines that had already been made using non-federal dollars.

The decision pleased no one. Scientists were upset by the restrictions; critics of the research were upset that the president had allowed any federal money to be spent on embryonic stem cells.

Both sides went to work to change the policy.

In California, voters authorized spending $3 billion over 10 years for embryonic stem cell research. A bipartisan Congress voted to ease federal restrictions, legislation which Bush vetoed. And opponents continued to push for a total ban on the research.

With the election of President Obama, the tide swung toward the scientists. In a White House ceremony in March, Obama said, "With the executive order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for and fought for these past eight years. We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research."

So where does the science of embryonic stem cells stand after a decade of political wrangling? A lot of exciting basic research is being done with embryonic stem cells, says Len Zon, a stem cell researcher at Children's Hospital in Boston. But using stem cells for therapy?

"I think that's still a ways off," Zon says. "Although there are some studies that the FDA is considering, I think we still have to figure out how to make these cells in a more efficient and effective way, and I think that's going to take awhile. You have to remember that the stem cell field is only 10 years old at the moment."

Zon points out that it's frequently two decades or more before new medical technologies find their way into patients.

More immediate, Zon says, is finding new drug therapies using a technique made possible by Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka. He found a way to take ordinary skin cells and turn them into cells that behave just like embryonic stem cells, but without destroying an embryo.

When the new technique was announced in 1997, stem cell researcher Jose Cibelli of Michigan State University predicted it would revolutionize the field of stem cell research, and not just because it removed the moral quandary of destroying embryos.

"Anybody can do this procedure," Cibelli said. "It's a very simple recipe. It's a combination of three or four genes, and in a couple of weeks you go from a skin cell to an embryonic stem cell. It's remarkable."

The new technique allows scientists to take cells from a patient with a disease, then convert them into these embryonic stem cell-like cells that can grow indefinitely in the lab.

Zon says he thinks this will change the way scientists understand diseases. But even though these new cells offer great promise, he says, research using cells derived from human embryos is still essential "because these new stem cells from the skin have to be compared to a golden standard. And the golden standard is the embryonic stem cells."

Zon says no matter what kind of stem cells are used, "I think stem cell research is the most exciting field in biology at this point."

Comments

Avatar for user 'madmacks'

madmacks | December 29, 2009 at 11:58 a.m. ― 4 years, 8 months ago

This article is very poorly researched and written in a sensationalistic manner resulting in a backhanded slap to pioneers in stem cell research.

"But to obtain them, a human embryo must be destroyed." I realize this is written for dramatic effect but this is careless and damaging. No matter which side one is regarding stem cells, this does nothing but infuriates those who know too little and those who are following the research every day.

Not only can stem cells be harvested from skin as you mention but they can be harvested from Adipose-Derived Stem and Regenerative Cells (ADRCs) or fat cells to aid tissue regeneration in the breast and heart. Cytori Therapeutics in our own backyard, Sorrento Valley has been making huge strides in this field. International Stem Cell Corp. in Oceanside uses Parthenogenesis which results in the creation of pluripotent human stem cell lines from unfertilized human eggs without the transfer of foreign DNA thus eliminating the ethical dilemma. Lastly On August 23, 2006, the online edition of Nature scientific journal published a paper by Dr. Lanza stating that his team had found a way to extract embryonic stem cells without destroying the actual embryo, deriving a stem cell line using a process similar to preimplantation genetic diagnosis, in which a single blastomere is extracted from a blastocyst. Dr Lanza is leading Advanced Cell Technologies in reversing Age-related macular degeneration (blindness). If their IND is approved they will be ready for clinical trials and will most likely be the first company to successfully implement stem cells in an FDA approved study as Geron has had setbacks and the human eye is the safest medium against proliferation and spread of mutations.

Irving Weissman, MD, director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and Virginia & D.K. Ludwig Professor for Clinical Investigation in Cancer Research put it best, “Instead of facts, the NIH placed its own version of ethics in place of the president’s clear proclamation. As head of the National Academy of Sciences' panel that unanimously endorsed research using SCNT, and as a drafter of the guidelines for the International Society for Stem Cell Research, I know that this suggested ban on federal funding of SCNT-derived human embryonic stem cell lines is against our policies and against President Obama’s March 9 comments. The NIH has not served its president well.”

America once paved the way for such innovations but now we are lacking in almost every field; sustainable energy, data infrastructure, public transport. Do not let stem cells be the next failure of our time.

-Max V.

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Avatar for user 'StemCellBlogger'

StemCellBlogger | January 6, 2010 at 2:05 p.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

The focus is all wrong. While Embryonic Stem Cells may have great potential for unknown results from research 20-50 years in future (as established by some of the top embryonic, stem cell and cloning researchers...and the director of NIH). In fact, they still haven't even mitigated the scientific problems inherent in the utilization of Embryonic Stem Cells in treatment...mainly tumors and rejection.

Meanwhile, around the world, the potential for treatment has ALREADY BEEN REALIZED in Adult or Repair Stem Cells. Over 100 diseases in hundreds if not thousands of patients have already been treated successfully including HEART DISEASE, CEREBRAL PALSY, DIABETES, PAD/AMPUTATION, STROKE, MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS and more. http://repairstemcell.wordpress.com/2009/10/10/do-stem-cell-treatments-work/

As for Max's statement: "America once paved the way for such innovations but now we are lacking in almost every field; sustainable energy, data infrastructure, public transport. Do not let stem cells be the next failure of our time" I share your position 100% but I'm afraid that ship has sailed long ago. The US, already years behind most of the world in regard to Stem Cell research FOR TREATMENTS of our millions of ill patients, is still losing ground. http://repairstemcell.wordpress.com/screw-the-embryos-they%e2%80%99re-irrelevant/

Imagine this scenario. A patient comes back from Repair Stem Cell treatment oversees and is already seeing improvements when she and her spouse got off of the plane. Her husband says: "I'm so glad we're back and you're feeling better." She responds: "Yeah, I love America! It's a great place to live...it's just a bad place to get sick."

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