August 6, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Stem Cell News: Adults Still Lead

Stem cells are still hot.  Most of the significant findings are coming from adult stem cells (AS) or induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) rather than embryonic stem cells (ES).  For example, a PhysOrg article described progress at the University of Michigan in predicting what cell types stem cells will become.  Nothing was said in the article about embryonic stem cells.  Here are more news reports since the 07/20/2010 entry on the lead of adult stem cell discoveries over ES findings.
    RNA is a rising star in stem cell research.  For instance, according to Science Daily, Caltech found that micro-RNAs, once of unknown function or considered cellular junk, are intimately involved with stem cells.  It appears they control the function of mammalian stem cells in the blood, determining what types of blood cell they will become.  Similarly, PhysOrg reported on work at Massachusetts General Hospital that found micro RNAs are involved in controlling the number of blood cells in the body.  Science Daily reported on work at MIT that finds RNA provides a safer way to reprogram stem cells (iPS cells). 
    Research at Stanford found that purifying the stem cells from bone marrow increase the chances for successful bone marrow transplants, according to PhysOrg.  Adult stem cells continue to show promise for healing broken hearts.  According to PhysOrg mesenchymal stem cells injected into pigs with heart disease made their hearts “good as new.”  Want a renewed, all-natural joint?  PhysOrg reported that adult stem cells are coming along well in experiments.  It appears from tests on rabbits that “failing joints can be replaced with a joint grown naturally using the host’s own stem cells.”  Researchers foresee a future with “naturally grown joints that would last longer than currently used artificial joints.”  Another study announced by PhysOrg found that, for patients with deadly brain tumors called glioblastomas, survival time was doubled if radiation therapy was directed at parts of the brain known to harbor stem cells that perhaps had become cancerous.  The radiation apparently targets the source of proliferating cancer cells.
    Overall, PhysOrg reported, adult stem cell therapies are “far ahead” of embryonic experiments.  “For all the emotional debate that began about a decade ago on allowing the use of embryonic stem cells,” the article said, “it’s adult stem cells that are in human testing today.  An extensive review of stem cell projects and interviews with two dozen experts reveal a wide range of potential treatments.”  The score for ES cells is still zero.  While according to New Scientist the first embryonic stem cell test on humans has gotten a green light, PhysOrg said that “in the near term, embryonic stem cells are more likely to pay off as lab tools, for learning about the roots of disease and screening potential drugs,”  An ethicist quoted in the article, however, dubbed all the efforts for a decade to use ES cells for therapy as “fruitless.”
    But perhaps the most significant news was announced by Science Daily.  The Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research has added strong evidence that ES and iPS stem cells are “virtually identical,” apparently removing any need for embryonic stem cells with their “ethical hurdles.”  Garrett Frampton, co-author of a paper in Cell Stem Cell about this comparison, commented, “Billions of dollars have been invested in the idea that we will use ES cells at some point in the future as therapeutic or regenerative agents, but for ethical and practical issues, this may not be possible.  But if they work out therapies with ES cells, and iPS cells are equivalent to ES cells, then the idea is that those therapies could be used with iPS cells as well.”
    In light of this scorecard, why was the dominant theme in the past decade focused on the promise of embryonic stem cells?  PhysOrg reported on a study at the University of Arizona that found who drove the issue.  It wasn’t public demand.  It wasn’t even the media.  According to the study, President Bush had little influence holding back the tide of ES research because of the demands of scientific elites.  The scientific community held the ball on the issue, and the media followed them – not the President.  “They also found that while two-thirds of the sources included in the stories were ‘elites,’ such as experts and politicians, not one story used the president as a dominant source.”  When President Obama voiced support for ES research, that all changed.  The media, the scientific community and the President were then all on the same team.  One of the study authors remarked, “I think it is time for us to see whether the same pattern occurred during the debate for health care reform under the new Obama administration.”

Defend science.  But when a scientist (or reporter, or President, or any other human being) does something deplorable, loses integrity, promotes a selfish agenda, wastes money, runs roughshod over ethics, or abandons common sense, “science” makes a pitiful shield.

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