Friday, November 23, 2007

Stem cell breakthrough announced

The New York Times was reporting yesterday that a new method of creating stem cells has finally been discovered. In some ways this validates the charges of those who said the first way (which used developing embryos) was being rushed into technological implementation without consideration of other possible methods.

Happily, the guy who was the brunt of the controversy for using the old embryonic method is the same guy who came up with the new method. Here is a short review of what stem cells are:
Stem cells, universal cells that can turn into any of the body’s 220 cell types, normally emerge only fleetingly after a few days of embryo development. Scientists want to use them to study complex human diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s in a petri dish, finding causes and treatments. And, they say, it may be possible to use the cells to grow replacement tissues for patients.[1]
I am most excited about the option for growing replacement tissue. This might be the magic bullet that fixes the problem of too few organs for too many organ transplant needs. One could grow the specific type of tissue for organ repair, or perhaps even grow a second-organ on site and then do a "parts swap" within a patient.

Also, this might solve many issues in what is called xenotransplantation -- the act of transplanting organs or tissue material between two species. At first it was thought that one would take stem cells from animals, which have not specialized much, and therefore were less likely to provoke an immune response in humans. Those cells could then be harvested at some timely moment in development for use in humans. (Today faulty human heart valves are routinely replaced with ones taken from cows and pigs, so xenotransplantation is already a reality; doctors are now just wanting to extend the process.) However, with this new discovery, the stem cells used can be human cells, so perhaps the animals could be surrogate carriers for the developing human organ, and then the human organ gets removed when it has fully matured. A dozen years ago, congress had to ban research on human embryos, but science professed nonetheless.


[1] Gina Kolata, "Man Who Helped Start Stem Cell War May End It" New York Times November 22, 2007


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