A new and exciting breakthrough in adult stem cell research has been widely reported over the past few days, including Nature News, the Globe and Mail from Canada, Technology Review, and the Times from Great Britain.
The Globe and Mail says this new breakthrough involves a method for motivating skin cells to change to a state akin to the embryonic where they can be used for various therapies.
Japanese and American teams developed a procedure similar to this a couple of years ago, but they had to use viruses to do it, which increased the risk of cancer generation.
According to the Globe and Mail, the new technique is different and doesn’t involve that same problem:
The team used a jumping gene, a mobile piece of DNA also known as a transposon. In moths, corn and other species, these genes hop from chromosome to chromosome, inserting themselves randomly into the genome. They give rise to the kind of genetic variability that can help species adapt to changing conditions.
First, Dr. Nagy and his colleagues inserted the four reprogramming genes into a jumping gene from a moth. Then they put the jumping gene and its cargo into a skin cell.
The jumping gene cut and pasted the stem cell genes into a chromosome in the skin cell. The scientists were then able to coax the skin cell back to its embryonic state, giving it the superhero-like ability to turn into many types of cells.
In many cases, they found that the jumping gene then took a second leap to another chromosome. But 60 per cent of the time, the second cut-and-paste operation wasn’t successful. This meant the four genes were not reinserted back into the genome of the skin cell, and disappeared, as did the jumping gene.
“It goes back to the original,” Dr. Nagy said.
The Canadian researchers were able to easily identify the stem cells that were no longer carrying the four genes.
The Times article also highlights some of the problems with embryonic stem cell research, which–unlike adult stem cell research–involves the destruction of human embryos:
their use is controversial because they must be derived from human embryos.
There is also a shortage of the human eggs and embryos needed to produce powerful stem cells, and unless difficult cloning techniques are used, there may be a risk of rejection by the body’s immune system.
Reprogrammed skin cells promise an almost limitless source of stem cells, and as they are the patient’s own rejection would not be an issue.
A method of reprogramming human skin cells into a versatile embryo-like state was first developed in 2007 by Japanese and American teams.
The induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells that result, which seem to have all the properties of embryonic stem cells, were named as “breakthrough of the year” by the journal Science.
The procedure, however, is unsuitable for therapeutic use, because it involves modifying four key genes with viruses, and this risks inducing genetic abnormalities that could cause cancer.
While the obstacles and the case against embryonic stem cell research remains pretty much static and unchanging (destruction of human life, problems with tissue rejection, tumor generation), it seems that almost weekly the case for adult stem cell research keeps getting stronger and stronger.
Embryonic stem cell research has not produced a single successful medical therapy, while adult stem cell research as produced dozens of successful treatments for maladies such as brain injury, stroke, retina regeneration, heart tissue regeneration, angina, diabetes, bone cancer, nerve regeneration, cerebral palsy, cartilage regeneration, Parkinsons, kidney damage, liver cancer, lupus, multiple sclerosis, leukemia and more.
We do not need to destroy innocent human life in pursuit of theoretical medical treatments when the adult stem cell line of research is already producing such successes.