Newest stem cell developments

I learned about the newest stem cell advance--converting human skin cells into stem cells--the day before the news was released. I didn't write about it as the news was breaking because I needed time to digest what the newspapers and online news sources were saying. So, now I'm ready.

I'm pleased to see that almost all articles inserted at least one note of caution about how long it will be before the discovery could translate into treatments for human conditions. Typically, however, the caution appeared in the "weakest" position in the articles, at the end of the carryover to an inner page. This, of course, is the place readers rarely reach.

I did find one of Yamanaka's comments particularly appropriate. He was quoted in an Associated Press article as saying:

We need to come up with some sort of rules about what kinds of cells can be used and to what ends. Otherwise someone may put this technology to use in troubling ways.

You can help be part of that "rule-making" by reading trustworthy news releases and asking questions. You may not think all this relates to you now, but I can assure you that you will be deeply interested some time in the future.

Many articles declared the breakthroughs a vindication of Bush's policy halting federal funding for research with "new" stem cell lines, as well as his refusal to approve bills returning all or part of the funding. Some are surely saying, "See, I knew all along that adult stem cells are the way to go." Meanwhile, the scientists working with embryonic stem cells--for example, those recently produced from the monkey--are saying that the research must continue. Their general message is that no one knows which path will be successful in producing the "cure" for paralysis, diabetes, or other conditions.

This research says nothing about adult stem cells, including stem cells extracted from umbilical cords. Although the cells that became stem cells started out as adult skin cells, they were genetically altered by transferring into them 4 genes known to turn cells "on" or "off". A virus was used to make the transfer. After the genes had been inserted into the cells, the cells changed in some as-yet-undetermined way, becoming capable of differentiating into cells other than skin cells. How far these cells have been grown was not discussed in the general media.

Because these cells now contain new genes, not to mention the viral genetic material that probably is no longer intact or capable of producing a virus, we don't know how they would behave if injected into a human--even the human from which the cells came in the first place. And, no one's likely to try introducing similar cells into humans until much more research has been done. Also, there's some destruction of the DNA in the process of conversion, so this may affect future development of the new stem cells.

So, the titles such as "Long Wait for a New Hope" and "Ethicists hail stem cell breakthrough" have to be tempered, as usual, with reality. Meanwhile, let's celebrate the fact that human stem cells have been created--in two different laboratories working independently--without destroying human embryos. This feat is truly a wonder in itself!

To read more about the research, consult a newpaper or online source you trust for accurate reporting or go directly to the articles in the peer-reviewed professional journals Cell (click on Yamanaka under Announcements at top right of home page) and Science News (only the abstract is available without cost).

Marie Godfrey, PhD

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