Sunday, November 7, 2010

Embryonic stem cells no longer needed?

Michael J. Fox, in an opinion published at on September 8, 2010, advocated the “scientific freedom to pursue all promising paths to finding” treatment for neurodegenerative diseases, “move beyond political agendas and advance the promise of stem cell research.” [1] He noted that, two weeks earlier, a federal judge in the U.S. granted a preliminary injunction to halt federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The promise of stem cell research is very encouraging for those with a variety of physical conditions including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and others. However, the progress of this research seems to be discouragingly slow. The crucial issue involves whether an embryo is a human being – if so, then how can we justify using a live human for laboratory experiments.

Fortunately, whether life begins at conception may be a moot point in regard to stem cells. Numerous recent studies have shown that adult cells can be transformed into stem cells with the same regenerative capability as embryonic stem cells. Adult cells reprogrammed to become undifferentiated are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), the word “pluripotent” indicating the ability to become almost any of the other 220 cell types in the body.

One such study in the April 25, 2010 issue of the journal Nature reported that mice were able to be cloned from adult iPSCs. This is significant because, previously, only embryonic cells were capable of this. Investigators from the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Regenerative Medicine and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute found that a segment of chromosome 12 containing genes important for fetal development were turned off with most iPSCs. By closely comparing profiles of cell lines in embryonic and adult stem cells, the researchers identified the chromosome that was hindering the process. Once this was identified, the adult stem cells were just as effective as embryonic cells. The researchers found that “those iPSCs (with chromosome 12 activated) were as successful in producing live animals as embryonic stem cells have been”. [2]

This is only one of many research experiments involving stem cells. A number of recent studies have successfully produced adult pluripotent stem cells with the same capabilities as embryonic cells. An article, already written, with several of these studies highlighted will be posted soon to the website. The bottom line: It is not necessary to create and destroy embryos - an early stage of human development - for scientific research. We sincerely hope, for Michael J. Fox and millions of others, that medical technology progresses expeditiously to the point of regenerating damaged cells and curing these debilitating diseases.

[1] Michael J. Fox, Special to CNN, “Michael J. Fox: Keep funding stem cell research”, CNN Opinion, 8 Sept 2010.
[2] Massachusetts General Hospital. "Gene Silencing May Be Responsible for Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells' Limitations."ScienceDaily, 29 April 2010. Web. 7 November 2010. .