In The Field

Neuroscience 2008: Stem cell lethargy

Some fantastic work was presented at the press conference on stem cells, but it all fell rather flat – the only conference I was at that finished early for lack of questions.

We heard about really cool stuff from Korea. Sujeong Jang partially repaired hearing in guinea pigs whose inner ears had been injured by destroying those little hair-like cells which turn sound waves into electrical signals. She transformed bone-marrow-derived stem cells into neuron-like cells and transplanted them into the inner ear. The number of new hair cells expanded, along with restoration of hearing. The MP3 generation will be glad this work is going on now – if the trajectory continues, ways of repairing currently irreversible inner ear damage will be available to them by the time they are old enough to need it.

Michael Zuber from SUNY, Syracuse reported his work showing he could convert pluripotent cells from frog cells into all seven classes of retinal cells normally found in the eye – and that these cells could be made to form complete, functioning eyes in tadpoles.

And Australian scientists reported on some intriguing new latent stem cells in the hippocampus of mice. Tara Walker suggests that these could potentially be activated in situ in neurodegenerative diseases.

Why the journalistic lethargy? One problem is that the press conference presenters declined to comment on the broader questions posed by the journalists– how might the politics of embryonic stem cell research in the US change, why is so much low-quality adult stem cell research being brought already into the clinic? Participants conveyed an air of defensiveness that was obviously strategic but nonetheless annoying.

Secondly, perhaps in the [misguided] interests of avoiding hype, they failed to present a useful context. It is just getting really hard for journalists to sort out how they should react to new findings in adult stem cell research. There is so much that is good, so much that is trivial, and not a clear enough signal from those in the field of where the difference lies.

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