Friday, November 23, 2007

Stem Cells - Stem Cell Breakthrough More than Skin Deep

When the news broke in Cell and Science, two prestigious scientific journals, that research teams in Japan and Wisconsin had re-programmed skin cells to mimic embryonic stem cells, I thought of Lewis Thomas, MD, renowned pathologist, scientist, and writer (1913-1993).

Thomas was best known for a series of New England Journal of Medicine essays, “Notes of a Biology Watcher. “ The essays ran from 1974 to 1990 and became best-selling books, including The Lives of A Cell. In that book, he made this prophetic statement.

I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism, but it is no go. I cannot think of it this way. It is too big, too complex, with too many working parts lacking visible connections. The other night, driving through a hilly, wooded part of southern New England, I wondered about this. If not like an organism, what is it like, what is it most like? Then, satisfactorily for that moment, it came to me: it is most like a single cell.

Indeed it is. And single cells may transform health care into a curative science.

Thomas said health care progress depended on basic research, such as the Salk polio vaccine. -- on understanding root causes of disease, not on “half-way technologies, “such as renal dialysis or coronary bypass.

Too many current innovations, though they may save lives and restore life style function, don’t root out pr explain basic causes, or reverse progression of underlying diseases.

Say what you will about skin cell re-programming into stem cells, that this re-programming.

defuses the political debate,

frees up funding for free-wheeling research,

eliminates need to destroy embryos

has the potential to cure cancer, heart disease, Alzheimers, paralysis, Parkinsons disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and diabetes.

But the true meaning of the skin-cell transformation is the triumph of basic science.

Here’s a Chicago Tribune described what has happened,”The potential here is staggering: A few flakes of skin could be turned into your own personal line of stem cells, coaxed to attack illnesses or even create replacement parts like a new organ, all without fear of an attack by the body's immune system. ‘It's just a spectacular, spectacular advance. was the way one prominent stem cell researcher described the findings.’ “

The research defuses political and ethical debate over destroying human embryos to harvest stem cells. This new technique promises an unlimited supply of stem cells without destroying embryos. Technical hurdles remain, but they're probably surmountable.Science and politics may finally get beyond distracting debates and embrace research unlocking potential of stem-cell therapies.

This latest technique won't replace human embryonic stem cells in medical research. Those stem cells are still the "gold standard" by which all other stem-cell lines are measured.

Researchers may soon develop an extensive array of stem cells derived in different ways because some stem cells may work against some kinds of illnesses but not others. It's also possible combinations of stem cells derived in different ways could be most potent against certain illnesses.If the ethical and political turmoil is resolved, and the federal spigot opens wide for research, stem-cell scientists may revolutionize medicine.

The triumph is more than skin-deep. It shows the importance of going back to basic academic research, past the half-way technologies ease symptoms but not cause or progression of disease. Transformed skin cells may not be ready for prime time, but they could be an example innovation becoming revelation.

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