Stem Cells, Snake Oil and You

We’re way past bottled snake venom now. The new miracle medical cure lies deep within us, in our stem cells, if we can only figure out how to tap into them. 100 days into President Obama’s term, and it seems that the scientific community here in the U.S. might just be getting the fuel it needs to make major headway. The ban on using federal research money for stem cell research has partially been lifted, and I imagine that more funding is to come. A wise investment, I say. The potential for stem cells in medical care is simply enormous. I say this without hint of idealism, or romance, since I myself have seen what stem cells can do in my research with Stanford.
True stem cells are “pluripotent.” That is, they have the ability to become all of the different types of cells in the body. They could be used to rebuild or replace damaged tissue that is difficult or impossible for our own bodies to repair. Take nerves for example. If nerve cells degenerate, as occurs say with multiple sclerosis, one could apply stem cells to replace those degenerated nerve cells. These same stem cells could also replace damaged tissue associated with lung cancer, or Parkinson’s disease, or diabetes. Many conditions, including these, can currently be medically controlled, and made easier to live with, but they can’t be cured. Stem cells may change all that. For example, if eyesight has been lost due to corneal damage, we may be able to use stem cells to grow a new cornea, and restore lost vision.
There are many hurdles to overcome, some of them highly technical problems dealing with how to get from point A to point B. And cells that come from someone else can potentially be rejected. Even still, there are questions that may never be satisfactorily answered, ethical and cultural questions. Truly pluripotent stem cells are currently taken from embryos. When embryos get older, we call them fetuses, and when they are born, we call them children. The meaning of taking basically the seedling of a human being to treat another isn’t easy for some people to swallow. For others, the idea of cell-based therapy goes against deeply rooted notions of what is natural on this good earth. How you feel about this reaches into the most sacrosanct places in the heart and mind.
But there are other possibilities besides taking stem cells from embryos. “Adult” stem cells are stem cells made not from embryos, but from the tissues of fully grown adults. Bone marrow is a good example. Within bone marrow, special cells exist that can create all the cells within your blood. It could be that almost every tissue in the adult body has some kind of adult stem cell within it. Such cells might be able to be harvested from the same patient who needs treatment. Manipulated in a dish, they could be coaxed into other tissues, just like embryonic stem cells. This would avoid the issue of rejection discussed earlier, as well as the ethical questions raised from using embryonic stem cells. Currently, this coaxing is only possible with the help of viruses that introduce specific pluripotency genes into the adult cells and transform them into embryonic like cells. But who knows what tomorrow will bring? As I said, I have seen the potential already in a petri dish. More on that in my next posting.