Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

November 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

STEM CELL BREAKTHROUGH?....Some promising news on the stem cell front:

Researchers in Wisconsin and Japan have turned ordinary human skin cells into what are effectively embryonic stem cells without using embryos or women's eggs — the two hitherto essential ingredients that have embroiled the medically promising field in a long political and ethical debate.

...."This is a tremendous scientific milestone, the biological equivalent to the Wright Brothers' first airplane," said Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., a developer of stem cell therapies.

Especially gratifying to stem cell researchers was that some of their biggest critics seemed mollified. Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said he was at a Vatican-sponsored meeting recently where the technique was described. "All the Catholic scientists and ethicists at the conference...had no moral problem with it at all," he said.

The new technique relies on a set of viruses to insert transcription factors into the skin cells, which makes them of limited immediate use. "The FDA would never allow us to use these virally modified cells in patients," Lanza told NewScientist, but understanding how the viruses do their work may help us understand how the transformation into stem cells proceeds in the first place, thus leading to other, safer techniques.

In the past it seems like there's always been some subtle gotcha attached to every promising report of adult stem cell research, so no jumping up and down yet. Still, good news.

Kevin Drum 11:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

Bookmark and Share
 
Comments

Wait a minute. They're opposed to using women's eggs now?

Life begins at ovulation?

Posted by: scarshapedstar on November 20, 2007 at 11:48 AM | PERMALINK

"In the past it seems like there's always been some subtle gotcha attached to every promising report of adult stem cell research,"

Yup. And every day we allow the "a fertilized egg is the same as a normal adult" simpletons to control policy, millions suffer and die.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on November 20, 2007 at 11:51 AM | PERMALINK

This is what I'm referring to re: the simpletons.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on November 20, 2007 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

There are good, non-religious reasons for finding a source of stem cells that does not rely on using human ova: Ova are hard to extract and subject the female to some amount of risk. This is one reason why compensation for egg donors is higher than for sperm donors. This risk is normally negligible when due care is taken, but if you were ever required to "scale up" and get lots of eggs, the ethical dimensions of egg retrieval could quickly escalate and become an issue unto itself. So even if you had to use ova for actual treatment (let's say) not having to use it for research makes such research more practical and also, of course, less expensive.

Posted by: Barbara on November 20, 2007 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

thank you pope ratface
for making the world a better place.
what a joke

Posted by: apeman on November 20, 2007 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

great. are they gonna stop destroying the blastocyst-americans left over from in vitro fertilization, too?

Posted by: benjoya on November 20, 2007 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

(While finding it rather silly to be spending time replicating in a different way something we already have simply to satisfy the religious right, still...)

On Wisconsin!

Posted by: Robert Earle on November 20, 2007 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

So now we can get back to the business of continuing to seed large rolls of embryonic tissue that can one day be harvested in mutant children?

Posted by: Linus on November 20, 2007 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

Especially gratifying to stem cell researchers was that some of their biggest critics seemed mollified.... "All the Catholic scientists and ethicists at the conference...had no moral problem with it at all," he said.

Galileo notwithstanding, the modern Catholic Church is generally pro-science and literate; it's not surprising that they don't have an ethical problem with this.

I'd not expect the same consideration from religious right protestants.

Posted by: Disputo on November 20, 2007 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

There are good, non-religious reasons for finding a source of stem cells that does not rely on using human ova: Ova are hard to extract and subject the female to some amount of risk.

Not to mention that for treatment (as opposed to research) it is much preferable to use stem cells created from one's own body than to use donor stem cells.

Posted by: Disputo on November 20, 2007 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK
The new technique relies on a set of viruses to insert transcription factors into the skin cells, which makes them of limited immediate use. "The FDA would never allow us to use these virally modified cells in patients," Lanza told NewScientist

This is seems likely to be true-but-misleading. The problem with the FDA isn't that viral modification is involved -- there are clinical trials now in gene therapy where virally-modified cells are inserted into patients (or where cells are modified in vivo with viruses). The problem is that while they know that this new process seems to have made somatic cells act like stem cells, its a new process and no one really understands what has been done, and the FDA would probably not approve the use of cells produced that way -- they'll want a lot more research and documentation, and chances are -- since stem cells presumably aren't genetically distinct from somatic cells to start with -- by figuring out what the viruses did that got the cells to change, you will also have done most of the work of figuring out a non-genetic way to induce the change, and hopefully rendered any genetic alteration superfluous.

Posted by: cmdicely on November 20, 2007 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

"All the Catholic scientists and ethicists at the conference...had no moral problem with it at all,"

They have no problem with injecting healthy skin cells with cancer genes in order to then graft them into already sick people's bodies? I guess it makes sense to fetishize the little life-in-potential embryos instead of prioritizing our sick neighbors.

Posted by: Xenos on November 20, 2007 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't seen the papers on this yet, but do the cells have telomeres? Because if they do, it's not a breakthrough at all. The absence of telomeres is what makes esc's so versatile.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on November 20, 2007 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Even if viable stem cells could be cultured from Grade A Wisconsin cheese, scientists should continue to destroy human embryos just to prove there's nothing wrong with it.

Posted by: Grumpy on November 20, 2007 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

All this horn-blowing in the open press ........
comments from religious groups,
someone from the NIH stem cell task force,
shill for biotech company
.... all before the research and results are formally described in a peer-reviewed publication.

Does this remind anyone of the cold-fusion debacle?

Posted by: optical weenie on November 20, 2007 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Here's your subtle got'cha, Kevin (from the NYT article):

He even completed the ultimate test to show that the resulting stem cells could become any type of mouse cell. He used them to create new mice, whose every cell came from one of those stem cells.
Seems that these "ips" are analogous to viable embryos.

Posted by: Eric on November 20, 2007 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, Kevin.

No dice, Drum. Turning skin cells into embryonic cells starts the slippery slope up the hill toward working off embryonic cells directly. Cost pressures will eventually pressurize researchers into being pressured to use straight embryos as opposed to the more man-hour intensive skin cells.

Not only that, but once you turn a skin cell into an embryo, automatically that cell has the potential for life, no? Thus it is just as morally repudant and should not be allowed.

Posted by: egbert on November 20, 2007 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

He even completed the ultimate test to show that the resulting stem cells could become any type of mouse cell. He used them to create new mice, whose every cell came from one of those stem cells.

It's really going to be interesting to see how fundamentalist nutcases are going to deal with this fact.

This possibility starts to decouple the creation of viable life from reproduction and sex.

So what does a fundie do with that? Say it's OK because it's not tied to sex? Declare that the skin cells are the full equal of a fertilized egg? Declare that man is acting like God in generating these kinds of cells, and should stop?

Their deepest problem is that the only moral authority they supposedly recognize, the Bible, is mysteriously silent on these distinctions. It's almost as if God himself didn't anticipate this discovery back in the day. Why else leave out discussion of it in the only known representation of His Word?

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

Please....keep up the research. Big Pharma, I am sure, does not want ever to lose its grip on the drug market. I myself use insulin. I have a vested interest in stem cell research. Let's "get 'er done"!

Posted by: avahome on November 20, 2007 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

Just to be clear, I think that the objection that fundamentalists raised to ordinary stem cell research is that it used women's eggs, part of the normal process of reproduction through sex. This made a connection to Biblical references and prohibitions make some vague sense.

But if you can get viable life out of manipulating, say, a skin cell, it's just not clear how any of those prohibitions apply.

Yet the idea of cloning seems to work just as before with these new types of cells.

What could the Bible possibly have to say on these points?

You have a clear decoupling of one of their purported concerns, that of a "viable life", with that of another, the creation of life using some aspect of the normal mode of reproduction.

It would be a good time for their heads to explode, realizing that God in all his goodness had neglected to give any guidance here in the Bible.

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

In the past it seems like there's always been some subtle gotcha attached to every promising report of adult stem cell research, so no jumping up and down yet.

Too Late

From: Family Research Council FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 20, 2007 CONTACT: J.P. Duffy or Maria Donovan, (866) FRC-NEWS

New Studies End Debate on Embryonic Stem Cell Research
November 20, 2007

Washington D.C. - Today, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins praised the research of Dr. James Thomson and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. Thomson, the first to grow human embryonic stem cells, and Yamanaka from Japan, published results in the journals Science and Cell, respectively, showing that embryonic-type stem cells can be produced directly from ordinary human skin cells, without first creating or destroying human embryos

"Today's announcement is an historic achievement, and just as important this breakthrough was accomplished without the destruction or cloning of human life. This demonstrates what pro-lifers have been saying since the beginning," Mr. Perkins said. "It is never necessary to compromise ethics by destroying life in order to achieve scientific aims."

"Dr. Thomson and Dr. Yamanaka have been able to expand drastically scientific frontiers while protecting human life. Scientists around the world can now produce and work with embryonic-type stem cells without concern for crossing ethical lines involving the destruction of human life."

"These two scientists are to be congratulated for their work, and I applaud President Bush for holding the ethical line on stem cell research and for encouraging this type of groundbreaking science.

Posted by: Martin on November 20, 2007 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

"Today's announcement is an historic achievement, and just as important this breakthrough was accomplished without the destruction or cloning of human life."

But what if those manipulated adult cells are, in fact, capable of becoming a new human being, as they seem to be?

Are they OK with the idea of killing off such a conglomeration of cells? If so, why so? At what stage does it become a problem? Suppose the organism looks just like a 8 month prenatal child?

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Blue Girl wrote:

>>I haven't seen the papers on this yet, but do the cells have telomeres? Because if they do, it's not a breakthrough at all. The absence of telomeres is what makes esc's so versatile.

Actually, that's not quite correct. Embryonic stem cells possess stable telomeres and high levels of telomerase (the enyzme that maintains telomeres), which allows them to continually divide in their undifferentiated state. Telomerase activity declines once the cells begin to differentiate, leading to gradually shortening of the telomeres. According to the study from Japan, these skin cell-derived pluripotent cells share similar telomerase character with classical embryonic stem cells:

As predicted from the high expression levels of hTERT, human iPS cells showed high telomerase activity (Figure 4A). They proliferated exponentially for as least 4 months (Figure 4B). The calculated population doubling time of human iPS cells were 46.9 ± 12.4 (clone 201B2), 47.8 ± 6.6 (201B6) and 43.2 ± 11.5 (201B7) hours. These
times are equivalent to the reported doubling time of hES cells.

Posted by: Chuck Darwin on November 20, 2007 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks to Chuck Darwin for clearing the telomerase issue up. I will add that if telomerase isn't present in high quantities, telomeres shorten after every cell division and when they become too short, cells will stop dividing. A major issue with all stem-like cells engineered from adult cells is that the telomeres were already significantly shortened. Therefore, these cells have only a finite amount of doublings available before they will stop dividing, making them of only moderate usefulness in many therapeutic applications. It sounds like this study was performed in mice, which have exceptionally long telomeres. Therefore, it may be possible to grow an entire mouse out of one of the modified mouse cells before the telomeres get too short. Humans have far shorter telomeres than mice to begin with, so it is very possible that while these ESC-like cells will grow into a mouse, they may not be able to grow into a human.

Posted by: CMP on November 20, 2007 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

Why else leave out discussion of it in the only known representation of His Word?

God was watching Lost that night.

Posted by: craigie on November 20, 2007 at 5:48 PM | PERMALINK

"Even if viable stem cells could be cultured from Grade A Wisconsin cheese, scientists should continue to destroy human embryos just to prove there's nothing wrong with it."


Isn't this what got God pissed enough to hit us with 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina? =)

I agree! Could all the religious zealots and demi-gods please step the fuck aside so the human race can evolve on OUR OWN terms, like Jesus wanted? Why do we have to ask permission from the Catholic Church or Pat Robertson every time we want to grow something in a Petri dish? They don't even believe in science so, keep them away from the experiments and make sure they don't reap any of the benefits.

Posted by: Eason on November 20, 2007 at 6:03 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks to Chuck Darwin for clearing the telomerase issue up. I will add that if telomerase isn't present in high quantities, telomeres shorten after every cell division and when they become too short, cells will stop dividing.

Yes - thank you Chuck. I dashed that off a bit quickly.

Telomeres are analogous to the plastic aglet on your shoelace. They can shorten and still function, to a certain point, and then, just as the shoelace begins to unravel, cells will die after the telomeres shorten enough.

If memory serves, cells in the lab can replicate about 50 times, max. The phenomenon was discovered by Leonard Hayflick and is named for him: The Hayflick Limit.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on November 20, 2007 at 9:06 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM



buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly