By Dave Andrusko
Scientists reported more progress yesterday with a method of creating stem cells without using embryos
Yes, that is it in a nutshell, and what follows in TN&V today is simply an elaboration of an important breakthrough in what are known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells).
Everybody knows about the ultra-controversial Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR). How could they not when we are told insistently that if you just are willing to pump federal money into hollowing out human embryos, you can use those stem cells to (eventually) cure most everything? This is all bunk, but… The proven alternatives to ESCR–by that I mean a source that is helping people here and now–are so-called adult stem cells. These non-controversial cells come from adult stem cells–bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and other tissues.
They “are treating thousands of patients around the globe, with an estimated 50,000 adult stem cell transplants occurring annually worldwide,” says David Prentice. “For some diseases, adult stem cell transplants have become the “standard of care,” meaning the treatments are so effective that they are a doctor’s best choice for sick patients.” For the most part, adult stem cells get a respectful response from the media, but hardly enthusiastic.
But the flashier alternative that is getting far more attention are induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). That will only increase with today’s report published online by researchers at Children’s Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
In essence, in fashioning iPS cells scientists have “rewound” the clock on an adult cell (typically a skin cell), turning the cell back into something very, very close to an embryonic stem cell.
Without getting too technical, the hang-up–the reason it couldn’t be tested in humans–was that the technique carried a risk endemic to the embryonic stem cells they so closely resembled: the iPS cells could turn cancerous. (It had to do with the way four genes were injected and in the process “tampering with the DNA,” as Ritter put it.)
So scientists have tried a number of ways to more gently reprogram the cells, including a cold virus, plastimids (circles of DNA), and chemicals. The technique explained in the paper published today by the journal Cell Stem Cell “treats skin cells with modified forms of RNA, a chemical cousin of DNA that normally transmits instructions from genes to the protein-making machinery of the cell,” Ritter explains.
It gets better. Beyond being safer, this alternative strategy “coax[es] those cells to morph into specific tissues that would be a perfect match for transplantation into patients,” according to Rob Stein of the Washington Post. The trifecta was complete when it was found that the technique is much more efficient.
According to Stein, “[T] he researchers found that a daily cocktail of their creations were surprisingly fast and efficient at reprogramming the cells. The approach converted the cells in about half the time of previous methods – only about 17 days – with surprising economy – up to 100 times more efficient than the standard approach.”
All this is taking place against the backdrop of the ongoing controversy over federal funding of ESCR. As we noted several times in Today’s News & Views, last month Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said that it appeared that the Obama Administration’s decision to fund embryonic stem cell research was inconsistent with a federal law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.
The ruling was preliminary, but the judge ordered the funding to cease while the case progresses. Subsequently a different court ruled that funding could resume while legal arguments proceed.