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Posts Tagged ‘stem cells’

Remember all the fuss about embryonic stem cells? About how the only way to offer hope to millions of people suffering from a plethora of diseases and medical conditions was to harvest stem cells from embryonic human life? About how the destruction of the human embryo was a sad but necessary price to pay for the incalculable advances that could be achieved? Remember the accusations that were hurled against those who opposed this utilitarian reasoning on ethical grounds, and dared to suggest that there might be an alternative and ethically acceptable route to medical progress?

It has just been announced that Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge University shares this year’s Nobel prize for physiology or medicine with Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka. Why? Because they have been at the forefront of research proving that adult cells can be reprogrammed and grown into different bodily tissues.

Sir John Gurdon on the right

Ian Sample reports. This is the ethical perspective from the end of the article:

For Julian Savulescu, Uehiro professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, the researchers’ work deserved particular praise because reprogrammed cells overcome the moral concerns that surrounded research on embryonic stem cells.

“This is not only a giant leap for science, it is a giant leap for mankind. Yamanaka and Gurdon have shown how science can be done ethically. Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all. He deserves not only a Nobel prize for medicine, but a Nobel prize for ethics.”

And here is some of the scientific background:

The groundbreaking work has given scientists fresh insights into how cells and organisms develop, and may pave the way for radical advances in medicine that allow damaged or diseased tissues to be regenerated in the lab, or even inside patients’ bodies…

Prior to the duo’s research, many scientists believed adult cells were committed irreversibly to their specialist role, for example, as skin, brain or beating heart cells. Gurdon showed that essentially all cells contained the same genes, and so held all the information needed to make any tissue.

Building on Gurdon’s work, Yamanaka developed a chemical cocktail to reprogram adult cells into more youthful states, from which they could grow into many other tissue types.

In a statement, the Nobel Assembly at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute in Sweden, said the scientists had “revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop”…

Gurdon’s breakthrough came in 1962 at Oxford University, when he plucked the nucleus from an adult intestine cell and placed it in a frog’s egg that had had its own nucleus removed. The modified egg grew into a healthy tadpole, suggesting the mature cell had all the genetic information needed to make every cell in a frog. Previously, scientists had wondered whether different cells held different gene sets.

Yamanaka, who was born in the year of Gurdon’s discovery, reported in 2006 how mature cells from mice could be reprogrammed into immature stem cells, which can develop into many different types of cell in the body. The cells are known as iPS cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells

Some researchers in the field hope to turn patients’ skin cells into healthy replacement tissues for diseased or aged organs…

Interesting that one of the scientists who missed out this year was James Thompson. He was a pioneer in human embryonic stem cells, being the first to isolate them in the lab in 1998. And more recently, Thompson has shown that mature human body cells could be reprogrammed into stem cells.

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Quite by chance I got chatting to someone who works in a business that deals with stem cells. As soon as he said this I got nervous, thinking the conversation was going to go in an ethically difficult direction. But it turns out that his line is umbilical cords and not embryos.

 

It was a fascinating conversation. The idea is very simple. The stem cells from the umbilical cord have the potential to be used in all sorts of therapies, and they match the child and not the mother. His company collects the cord at birth and stores it, for a fee – so that it can be used to harvest stem cells if they are needed for the child at any time in the future.

What is so interesting, medically and philosophically, is that even though some therapies are already developed, the primary purpose of keeping these stem cells is for them to be used in therapies that are as yet undiscovered. So five, ten, fifteen years in the future the child may need them for a therapy that doesn’t yet exist.

Please don’t think I am promoting this company – this is a blog about ideas, and I have no idea what this or any other stem cell company is actually like. But if you are interested in seeing how one such company promotes itself, and how an ethical scientific idea can be translated into a practical proposition for parents, then take a look here at the Smart Cells website. This is their sales pitch:

Why store your child’s stem cells? The umbilical cord and umbilical cord blood are discarded as medical waste after the hospital draws samples for their testing…unless the mother chooses to bank the cord blood. In 1988 a stem cell transplant took place that received little attention, yet heralded the start of an exciting new era in medicine.

The transplant used stem cells found in the umbilical cord blood remaining in the placenta and umbilical cord after the birth of a baby. The patient was a little boy suffering from a serious blood disorder called Fanconi’s Anaemia, and the stem cells were taken from the cord blood of his new-born sister.

Your child’s stem cells have a one in four chance of matching a sibling. Using genetically related stem cells which are free from the disease being treated, often results in successful transplants with fewer complications.

The thought of your baby or any other member of your family becoming seriously ill is probably the last thing on your mind during your pregnancy. By storing your new-born baby’s umbilical cord stem cells, you can give your family a gift that can last a lifetime.

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A lot of pressure has been put on the British public over the last few years to try to convince them of the scientific necessity of harvesting stem cells from human embryos. It’s been a kind of emotional blackmail: If you won’t support this kind of research and therapy then you are condemning millions of people who might have benefitted to unnecessary illness and suffering.

Brain neurons

It’s good to hear that research into adult stem cells has been hugely successful. It shows that you can be scientific and ethical at the same time. That you can respect human life at its very earliest stages even as you are trying to help those who are suffering in its later stages.

This report came out recently from the BBC:

UK researchers are launching a study into the potential of using a person’s stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease. A Oxford University team will use adult stem cells, which have the ability to become any cell in the human body – to examine the neurological condition. Skin cells will be used to grow the brain neurons that die in Parkinson’s, a conference will hear. The research will not involve the destruction of human embryos.

Induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells were developed in 2007. At the time, scientists said it had the potential to offer many of the advantages of embryonic stem cells without any of the ethical downsides. Three years on, it seems to be living up to that claim.

The team at Oxford University is among the first in the world to use IPS to carry out a large scale clinical investigation of Parkinson’s, which is currently poorly understood.

Researchers will be taking skin cells from 1,000 patients with early stage Parkinson’s and turning them into nerve cells carrying the disease to learn more about the brain disorder, the UK National Stem Cell Network annual science meeting will hear. The technique is useful because it is difficult to obtain samples of diseased nerve tissue from patient biopsies. IPS enables the researchers to create limitless quantities of nerve cells to use in experiments and to test new drugs.

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