The latest on stem cells

Imagine a renewable, living, raw material that you could shape to perform miracles — like helping a blind person see, curing Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes and seeing how cancer occurs so you can stop it. It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, but in reality this “material” is the subject of much study and controversy.

If you’re not familiar with stem cells, here’s a quick primer: In a nutshell, they’re important because they are unspecialized cells — meaning they can be prompted to become specialized cells like those that make up our heart and lungs. They can even be developed into types of cells that don’t normally renew themselves, like muscle, blood and nerve cells.

The future applications of stem cell research and stem cell-based therapies have huge potential to solve some of our biggest medical issues. Simply studying how these undifferentiated cells become differentiated can help scientists understand how birth defects and cancer occur — and help find ways to prevent them. Stem cells can also be used to develop tissue to test new drugs like anti-tumour drugs.

One of the most important areas of research is stem cell therapies. The idea is that stem cells can be directed to develop into various kinds of tissue and organs– like a heart for someone needing a transplant or replacement cells to repair a spinal cord injury. Scientists predict that stem cells could provide effective therapies for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, Parkinson’s and a host of other ailments.

So what’s the fuss?

Who wouldn’t want these therapies? Research and development still has a long way to go, and the path isn’t without its obstacles. Funding is a major issue, and stem cells aren’t easy to come by.

Exacerbating both situations is the moral dilemma surrounding the use of human embryonic stem cells, which are vitally important for research. Essentially, these cells are harvested from embryos that are just a few days old, and most of them are unused embryos from fertility clinics. Similar types of cells also can be isolated from fetal tissue. (Stem cells from umbilical cord fluid are too mature, and aren’t considered to be in this same category).

However, obtaining the cells involves two questionable areas: destroying the embryo and/or therapeutic cloning. Pro-life advocates oppose the former strategy, and opponents of the later worry about the proverbial “slippery slope” this kind of research presents. Many celebrities, politicians and leaders have been weighing in on the issue. The Vatican even issued a statement calling the use of embryos to be “a gravely immoral act .” (Read the full statement here).

For many people, the potential benefits simply don’t justify the means.

What’s new

So will controversy continue to impede the research? Two important developments have been announced this month that will change how the research shapes up in the future.

The first: As you may recall, researchers over the last couple of years have been successfully working with stem cells from another less controversial source: adults. Last year, researchers from Japan and the U.S. demonstrated that it was possible to create stem cells from skin — usually the patient’s own tissue (which also decreases the risk of the body rejecting the organ or cell therapy). Their methods involved using viruses to “reprogram” the mature cells. The downside: using viruses can increase the patient’s likelihood of developing cancer or developmental disabilities later on.

However, Canadian and Scottish researchers are changing how it’s done. Researchers at Mount Sinai’s Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute and the University of Edinburgh used an electric shock instead of a virus to insert a “jumping gene” — a transformative piece of DNA that helps the skin cell revert to an embryonic state (the gene can be safely removed once the change has occurred). The bottom line: it’s a safer way to use adult stem cells and adds to the body of knowledge and research possibilities.

While the press was quick to hail this breakthrough as an end to the ethical dilemma, researchers were quick to point out the opposite. This procedure doesn’t replace the need for embryonic stem cell research. One of the reasons is that embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells have similar properties, but they’re not identical. Embryonic cells are still required for many research lines, and no one knows yet how adult stem cell therapies will compare with the embryonic counterparts.

Enter Barack Obama and his Executive Order (EO) 13404 “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells”. The EO revokes George W. Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (outlined in EO 13435 and the Presidential statement of August 9, 2001).

Under the Bush administration, only 21 lines of research that began before that date would receive taxpayer support. (In fact, cells had to be obtained before 9:00 pm on that day for the research to qualify). However, many of these lines have long since outlived their usefulness. The hundreds of new lines created after Bush’s ruling — which are arguably more current and show greater promise — have had to rely on private funding sources.

However, Obama is softening the line between science and ideology. He argues that (ideally) scientific policies should be based on science and not on ideology or politics.

“In recent years when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values,” Obama said in a White House press conference on March 9.

“In this case the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research – and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.”

So how does this translate to dollars? According to the report in the National Post, the funding isn’t necessarily for the creation of new lines. Rather, U.S. scientists working on existing lines shunned by the Bush administration can now apply for federal grants rather than having to rely on private donations alone.

What now?

So what does this mean for the rest of us? These new developments aren’t just a matter of money; it could signal a change of attitude in how we view stem cell research. A U.S. administration more willing to support embryonic stem could open up the field for more research and more breakthroughs. Regardless, finding safer treatments using adult stem cells opens up possibilities for treatments and therapies that side-step part of the moral debate.

It’s good news — but don’t expect changes to happen overnight. Changes to policy will be slow, and there’s still the economy to grapple with as well. No one’s quite sure how much money will be available, or where it will come from as federal budgets change. Critics of Canada’s new budget warn that our world-leading scientists may soon be heading south. Ironically, scientists who came north because of Bush’s decree may follow the money back to the U.S.

Essentially, these changes open the door for more research and potentially more policy change. Undoubtedly, people on both sides of the debate will be keeping a close eye on further developments.

For more information

Stem cell research is a huge field — one that can’t easily be explained or explored in the span of a single article. Here’s where to turn for more detailed information:

European Consortium for Stem Cell Research: About Stem Cells

Health Canada: Stem Cells

National Institutes of Health: Stem Cell Information

National Post: Canadian stem cell breakthrough

Got an opinion on the topic? Tell us in the comments.


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