Monday, March 27, 2006

New Embryonic Stem Cell Technology May Redefine Science Debate

This report from researchers in Nature is something I have been waiting and hoping to see for several years. (See Washington Post coverage here).

Back when I was in graduate school, I went to a symposium on stem cells (circa 2001 or 2002). There were some very interesting talks, some very speculative, and one about cloning cattle at UGA, I believe.

Anyway, the important point is that one of the talks was by a researcher (I think unrelated to this current paper) who discussed the concept of taking adult stem cells and, by growing them in media containing certain nutrients, chemicals, etc., inducing them to revert to an earlier state of differentiation -– with the goal of turning the cells BACK into embryonic stem cells. He called this process de-differentiation and now it seems some German researchers have managed to (accidentally?) do just that with adult stem cells from mice testes. (This is of particular interest to me as I worked with mice - and their testes. The glamorous life of a research scientist.)

However, if this discovery is legitimate and, more importantly, can be recapitulated with human adult stem cells (although, I don'’t know who will volunteer to give those cells - ouch) then this new technique has the potential to completely redefine the embryonic stem (ES) cell debate. I say redefine because I don't want to say that this will end the debate. For example, this technique eliminates the need for harvesting stem cells from an embryo -– a process that effectively destroys it (which is the main objection from religious conservatives). So, at first glance, this new discovery would seem to silence that issue. However, I could see religious conservatives take up a new position if it is possible for these de-differentiated ES cells to become embryos (I would doubt that this is possible but you never know). That is why I say this work could redefine the debate.

Another bonus is that these de-differentiated ES cells would be tailor made for a man to receive because they could come from his own tissue - thus eliminating the need for nuclear cloning (a.k.a. therapeutic cloning, in which the nucleus from a fully-differentiated adult cell replaces the nucleus of an ES cell). This avoids another boogeyman.

There is one significant downside right now. Unfortunately, since de-differentiatable stem cells have only been found in the testis, only men can benefit from any therapies that arise from this technology. However, therapeutic cloning could solve this problem -– but then we have to contend with this issue again. That may result in an interesting dilemma: in which men are free to benefit from these new ES cells but women have no access to the therapies. Then the question of laws banning cloning takes on new dimensions such as sexism, civil rights, etc.

Personally, I'd be pretty pissed if my wife or my mom couldn't have an ES cell therapy because a bunch of men made laws against therapeutic cloning on dubious 'moral' grounds.

But, all in all this may end up being fantastic news and finally open up stem cell research and allow it to achieve its world-changing potential.

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