July 20, 2002 | David F. Coppedge

Adult Stem Cells Lead Health Progress

51; Adult stem cells (AS) and induced pluripotent stem cells from adult tissues (iPS) continue to rack up tallies over embryonic stem cells (ESA).  Do we really need the embryonic variety?  Some continue to say yes, even though the practice of harvesting human embryos creates serious ethical questions for many.

  1. Controlling fate:  If you’d rather live a healthy person than diabetic, an article on Science Daily had good news.  Researchers at the University of North Carolina are making progress controlling the pluripotency of adult stem cells.  The article began with a vision of “personalized therapy” this advance helps bring closer: “Take a skin cell from a patient with Type 1 diabetes.  Strip out everything that made it a skin cell, then reprogram it to grow into a colony of pancreatic beta cells.  Implant these into your patient and voila!  She’s producing her own insulin like a pro.”
  2. Blood vessel cleaner:  Combine nanoparticles with adult stem cells, shine a light, and you might get a kind of Dran-O for blood vessels.  PhysOrg told about work by the American Heart Association that shows promise for reducing arterial plaque, the cause of atherosclerosis, with the use of adult stem cells activated with tiny particles and UV light.
  3. Blood iPS:  PhysOrg reported on progress at the Whitehead Institute for getting adult stem cells from blood.  Why is this encouraging?  “Blood is the easiest, most accessible source of cells, because you’d rather have 20 milliliters of blood drawn than have a punch biopsy taken to get skin cells.”  According to the inventor of the iPS process Shinya Yamanaka, as quoted by Science News, these findings “represent a huge and important progression in the field.”  Induced pluripotent stem cells may not be totipotent, but the gap is closing.  “But induced pluripotent cells are harvested from adults and so don’t face the same ethical mires posed by embryo-derived stem cells,” reporter Laura Sanders wrote.  “And as techniques for manipulating induced pluripotent cells improve, some researchers think they may be just as useful.”
  4. Artificial blood:  Imagine being able to get large quantities of blood to the battlefield without donors.  That life-saving promise is being fulfilled thanks to adult stem cells.  PhysOrg reported that artificial blood with real blood cells is coming down the assembly line thanks to hematopoietic stem cells from discarded umbilical cords.  “The blood cells are said to be functionally indistinguishable from normal blood cells and could end forever the problem of blood donor shortages in war zones and difficulties in transporting blood to remote and inaccessible areas.”
  5. Sepsis tanked:  Another article on PhysOrg announced, “A new study from researchers in Ottawa and Toronto suggests that a commonly used type of bone marrow stem cell may be able to help treat sepsis, a deadly condition that can occur when an infection spreads throughout the body.”  This achievement may triple the survival rate of those afflicted with this autoimmune disorder.
  6. Fat gains for bone:  How would you like to use some of your fat to strengthen your bones?  Fat has stem cells that can do the trick, reported PhysOrg.  Researchers at UC Davis are creating a gel from fat stem cells that helps regenerate bone.
  7. Heart health:  Science Daily announced a new finding that will help heart patients.  Instead of having to extract bone marrow, doctors can find stem cells right in the heart tissue itself.  “Using heart-derived stem cells to treat heart attack and cardiomyopathy has some advantages over embryonic and induced pluripotent cells as they are potentially safer,” the article said.  “It’s also notable that of these three cell types, it’s only heart-derived cells that are in current human clinical trials for this sort of treatment.”
  8. Fixed hearts:  PhysOrg told about a German team that uses a tiny plastic scaffold to grow genetically-engineered stem cells on broken hearts.  This method “reduced organ damage and led to better cardiac function after a heart attack,” the article said. 
  9. Methodical gains:  A young and healthy-looking Stanford team is smiling in an article on Science Daily.  Why?  They figured out a new way to grow adult stem cells in culture.  They have found a “technique they believe will help scientists overcome a major hurdle to the use of adult stem cells for treating muscular dystrophy and other muscle-wasting disorders that accompany aging or disease,” the article said.
  10. ES score?  One of the rare reports of a health success from ES cells was reported by PhysOrg: pancreatic tissues from lab rats afflicted with diabetes started producing insulin with an injection of ES cells – provided adult islet cells were transplanted with them.

An article on Science Daily claimed that induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) retain a memory of their former state, and therefore are not truly totipotent – able to transform into any cell type, as are ES cells.  The article had nothing to say about the ethics of the matter, however, nor did it discount the clear successes taking place with adult stem cells.  It only suggested that the memory is “perhaps limiting their ability to function as a less controversial alternative to embryonic stem cells for basic research and cell replacement therapies….”
    Meanwhile, Nature last week was very concerned about restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.1 The editors acknowledged that “The rift between opponents and supporters of research using human embryonic stem cells seems all but insurmountable, reaching to the core of individual notions of morality.”  But their concern was over a judicial ruling that granted standing to supporters of adult stem cells who felt their work was being shunned in funding decisions because the Obama administration has focused on funding embryonic stem cell research.  “Peer review should be enough to decide which projects merit funding,” the editors said.  The editorial prompted some spirited debate.  Jeff Harvey, who argued that taxpayers have standing as the ones who pay for the research, wrote in,

This is perhaps the real problem with scientists–we often think we are the only ones capable of judging our actions.  But consider what would happen if every group thought the same about their own group.  Teaching can only be judged by teachers, highway paving can only be judged by pavers, judges can only be judged by judges, presidents by other presidents, despots by other despots, and criminals by other criminals.  What a beautiful world THAT would be!!!

Meanwhile, an evolutionary biologist tried to make a case before the UK National Stem Cell Network annual conference that “pluripotency could actually be one of the most ancient features of embryos,” reported PhysOrg.  Why? “…since evolution depends on generating advantageous changes, and pluripotency seems to be a good thing,” Dr. Andrew Johnson explained.


1.  Editorial, “A dangerous precedent,” Nature 466, p. 159, 08 July 2010, doi:10.1038/466159a

Far be it from Evolution, that clever goddess, to pass up a good thing.  “One more advantageous change, sunny side up!” the waiter calls.  Chef Darwin with his secret sauce always cooks it up and serves it elegantly, right on cue.  Millions of years later, the products of all this elegance, the evolved scientists, emerge and come up with all kinds of wonderful reasons to tell their fellow adults, loaded with pluripotent stem cells, that it’s a good thing to cut up their embryos.  Some day, the scientists might find a use for them.  On the way to the prize money, they might even find a cure for… something.

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