What’s Up with Stem Cells?
Stem cells were a huge issue a few years ago, but discoveries are still being made. Here’s a wrap on stories in the news.
Adult Stem Cells (AS) and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSC)
Editor Note: These kinds of stem cells do not present ethical controversies, for the most part.
Rapid and efficient generation of oligodendrocytes from human induced pluripotent stem cells using transcription factors (PNAS). This paper announces the use of iPSC to generate human oligodendrocytes. “The strategy presented herein will markedly facilitate the studying of human myelin diseases and the development of screening platforms for drug discovery.”
Turning skin cells into blood vessel cells while keeping them young (Medical Xpress). A new method of converting skin cells doesn’t require making them pluripotent. “Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have identified a molecular switch that converts skin cells into cells that make up blood vessels, which could ultimately be used to repair damaged vessels in patients with heart disease or to engineer new vasculature in the lab.”
Scientists turn human induced pluripotent stem cells into lung cells (Medical Xpress). Researchers at Boston University are finding ways to grow and isolate lung tissue precursors from iPSCs, this article says.
Red blood cells derived from stem cells could offer a limitless supply for transfusions (Medical Xpress). This article mentions “reprogrammed stem cells” presumably meaning iPSCs. If so, Singapore is making progress in generating red blood cells (RBCs) from reprogrammed stem cells. If it works, this could reduce the need for blood banks. The researchers at A*STAR appear to be experimenting with both embryonic and reprogrammed stem cells.
iPSCs hold great promise in regenerative medicine, personalized medicine and drug discovery… while avoiding the ethical controversies associated with embryonic stem cells.
First evidence of ischemia-induced multipotent stem cells in post-stroke human brain (Medical Xpress). This interesting article describes the brain’s self-repair mechanism with its own stem cells following stroke. “Researchers have shown that following a stroke-induced ischemic injury to the human brain, stem cells are produced that have the potential to differentiate and mature to form neurons that can help repair the damage to the brain.”
Alerting stem cells to hurry up and heal (Medical Xpress). This article also describes how the body uses its own stem cells for tissue repair, sending stem cells to sites of injury. Researchers at Stanford have identified a signal that tells them to speed up. Patients in surgery, the aged, and those injured in sports might benefit from this accelerated repair.
First participant treated in trial of stem-cell therapy for heart failure (Medical Xpress). The first clinical trial of using one’s own bone-marrow stem cells to repair heart muscle is underway at the University of Wisconsin. The trial is entering Phase III.
Differentiation of V2a interneurons from human pluripotent stem cells (PNAS). Know someone with spinal cord injury? Read this paper about how researchers at Columbia University are ditching embryonic stem cells for iPSCs, in order to develop “a novel therapy to restore functional connections between the brain and spared downstream neurons” to repair spinal cord injuries.
Blood: Education for stem cells (Nature News). Two papers in Nature show promise for heart disease patients. “Haematopoietic stem cells give rise to all lineages of blood cell, and their production in vitro has been a long-sought goal of stem-cell biology,” the subheadline reads. “Two groups now achieve this feat through different means.”
In four related papers, researchers describe new and improved tools for stem cell research (Phys.org). Basic research on iPSCs continues. It’s necessary to understand genetic variants or obstacles to their safe use.
New twin study sheds light on what causes reprogrammed stem cells to have different epigenetic patterns (Medical Xpress). One good way to understand iPSC behavior is to compare iPSCs derived from identical twins. That’s what researchers are doing at UC San Diego. It’s allowing them to answer questions they couldn’t ask before. “You’re able to see what happens when you reprogram cells with identical genomes but divergent epigenomes, and figure out what is happening because of genetics, and what is happening due to other mechanisms.”
Stem cells show promise – but they also have a darker side (Jill Johnson at The Conversation via Medical Xpress). Johnson talks about mesenchymal stem cells, which are ‘multipotent’ but not as ‘pluripotent’ as iPSCs. There are promises and perils of using MSCs, but the barriers to their use are falling with research. The article includes discussion about stem cells and why they are desirable.
A new method for creating safer induced pluripotent stem cells (Phys.org). This article investigates ways to rid iPSCs of any oncogenic factors and virus elements that might affect their safe use, recognizing that iPSCs “hold great promise in regenerative medicine, personalized medicine and drug discovery… while avoiding the ethical controversies associated with embryonic stem cells”.
Embryonic Stem Cells
Editor Note: These are the stem cells that generate the most ethical controversy, because they require killing a human embryo.
Public opinion on stem-cell research was more strongly associated with religious convictions in the U.S. than in Canada and Europe.
California’s $3-billion bet on stem cells faces final test (Nature). How predictable: $3 billion in California taxpayer money is running out, and now they want more. Back in 2004, largely a result of high-pressure ads, Californians approved $3 billion in funds to investigate embryonic stem cells for ‘regenerative medicine.’ Anything to show for it? A lot of research grants, but very little in the way of actual cures— certainly not for Superman star Christopher Reeve and Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox, whose pleas on TV swayed voters. Now, CIRM eyes the money running out in 2020. Time to hold out the offering plate again.
Scientists expand ability of stem cells to regrow any tissue type (Phys.org). Reporters seem to be guarding their words about embryos. Salk Institute researchers are collaborating with Chinese to tease out more capabilities of “human stem cells” to produce placentas and other embryo-related tissues, but they only obliquely indicate are experimenting on actual human embryos. Part of the reason for their work is to study “development, evolution and human organ generation” from stem cells. They appear to be working with rat embryos at this stage.
Religion and the public ethics of stem-cell research: Attitudes in Europe, Canada and the United States (PLoS One). This paper goes back to 2005 to study ethical attitudes in different countries about the use of human embryos.
In the U.S., moral acceptability was more influential as a driver of support for stem-cell research; in Europe the perceived benefit to society carried more weight; and in Canada the two were almost equally important. We also find that public opinion on stem-cell research was more strongly associated with religious convictions in the U.S. than in Canada and Europe, although many strongly religious citizens in all regions approved of stem-cell research. We conclude that if anything public opinion or ‘public ethics’ are likely to play an increasingly important role in framing policy and regulatory regimes for sensitive technologies in the future.
Clearly, religious convictions play a major role in what researchers are allowed to get away with – and that will apply to other ethical controversies in the brave new world.
Those who value human life must not be silent when researchers try to play God in their labs, especially if it is for fame or filthy lucre.