Action Potential

Cells reverting back to their youth

Since we had a long and involved conversation on the role of embryonic stem cells in research, as well as how this issue is politicized by both sides of the debate (with additional discussion here), recent news insists that we post a follow-up on Action Potential.

Two papers (one published online by Cell and the other in Science) proclaimed last week that adult cells could be reprogrammed into an entity indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells, using a recipe of only 4 additional factors (different genes in each paper, with some overlap). Although it is virtually impossible to conduct the necessary gold-standard tests on humans as to whether they are indeed pluripotent, the fact that these reprogrammed cells could be used to rapidly produce up to 10 different lines for research purposes is, at the very least, outrageously encouraging.

With the cells so easy to come by (derived from skin and fluid in the joint) and with the fabulous success rates of the researchers, it is only a matter of (short) time before these techniques replace the former practice of deriving pluripotent cells from discarded embryos. Removing the embryo from the equation thus removes the ethical concerns, and should relax Dr. Condic and the religious right. After all, the argument stating that a lack of progress in stem cell-related therapies is a good reason to abandon it (don’t get me started on that one again…) hardly holds water when the obvious ethical concerns are removed. Who cares if human foreskin and synovial (joint) fluid cells die “in vain” as we dabble with stem cells in disease treatment. I am unaware of any prominent Foreskin Banks offering to place circumcision refuse in liquid nitrogen for the donor/owner until further notice, a good indication that this tissue does not carry the same “moral weight.” Therefore, the new research results should be seen as a victory by all; stem cells that are both more ethical and more practical. The phrase “stem cells” may even cease to be dirty words in even the most conservative political circles.

But wait, don’t lament for the Revelations-reading, hellfire-and-brimstone-spewing few that thrive on condemning the liberal godless scientist. In that same week, a study in Nature also announced the successful cloning of a primate. Combining this technology with the reprogramming tricks described above could (in theory) open the door to “personalized” medicine as is imagined in science fiction. In essence, cloned pluripotent cell lines could be made from any individual, providing for the creation of cells that are a genetic match to the patient. Therefore, immune suppression, as is needed after a transplant, would be unnecessary when receiving tissue grafts (or organs??) derived from one’s own reprogrammed skin, since the cloned cells would actually be from the patient, not a stranger with different DNA. But having this kind of genetic power could eventually lead to the cloning of a human being.

Let the cloning debate resume where the stem cell debate dies…

Takahashi, K., Tanabe, K., Ohnuki, M., Narita, M., Ichisaka, T., Tomoda, K., & Yamanaka, S. (2007). Induction of Pluripotent Stem Cells from Adult Human Fibroblasts by Defined Factors Cell, 131 (5), 861-872 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2007.11.019

Yu, J., Vodyanik, M., Smuga-Otto, K., Antosiewicz-Bourget, J., Frane, J., Tian, S., Nie, J., Jonsdottir, G., Ruotti, V., Stewart, R., Slukvin, I., & Thomson, J. (2007). Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Lines Derived from Human Somatic Cells Science, 318 (5858), 1917-1920 DOI: 10.1126/science.1151526

Byrne, J., Pedersen, D., Clepper, L., Nelson, M., Sanger, W., Gokhale, S., Wolf, D., & Mitalipov, S. (2007). Producing primate embryonic stem cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer Nature, 450 (7169), 497-502 DOI: 10.1038/nature06357


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    Noah Gray said:

    Something I didn’t catch yesterday before I posted this entry – Nature published a follow-up editorial regarding the continuation of research using embryonic stem cells. They basically say that we shouldn’t abandon that line of work just yet simply because it is more of a challenge to get around various barriers impeding the research. We still have much to learn about cellular differentiation, with embryonic stem cells still possessing valuable secrets. To quote:

    These scientists are not oblivious to the ethical issues and they are not merely indulging personal fascination. They have not denied the importance of doing research on adult stem-cells and reprogramming in parallel. It would be a relief for them if all the scientific problems had been solved in the papers published last week — abandoning work on human embryonic stem cells would allow them to operate with a clear conscience and without having to defend their work all the time.

    The editorial goes on to state that, eventually, the time will come to abandon work on stem cells derived from embryos, but just not yet. So what. Of course researchers know that. Of course researchers still understand that there is much to be learned from the previous way of doing things. Of course the opponents of embryonic stem cell research will use the latest reprogramming results to justify the strict policies governing the use of embryos in research. However, no new laws adding further restrictions are likely to be passed (especially in the USA, with both a future democratic president and a democratic congress in power…). And very few laws, if any, relaxing the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research were close to being passed prior to the announcement of adult cell reprogramming. So it is unlikely that favorable legislative advantages have been since pulled off the table.

    Nothing has changed in the ethical argument in practice, making it seem as if the author of the editorial is a little bit flustered about nothing. The time will come, regarding the future of stem cell research (and as I mentioned in the entry, cloning), when it is appropriate to panic over the quarrels between scientists, those defending certain ethical standards, and legislation. But that moment has not yet arrived.

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    Annette Markus said:

    As you refer to Maureen Condic — I was surprised and delighted to see that she is thrilled with the advance, too. See the opinion piece she penned with Markus Grompe in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal:

    Citing them: “Science has provided a resolution to the ethical and political debate, and all parties emerge victorious.”