An article published in the journal Nature on Oct. 5, entitled “Human oocytes reprogram somatic cells to a pluripotent state,” chronicles the findings of a research team from the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) — a not-for profit research based organization whose mission statement is as ambitious as it is inspiring: “[ . . . ] to accelerate cures for the major diseases of our time through stem cell research,” cites nyscf.org.
The study in Nature details how, under certain laboratory conditions, stem cells were successfully cloned and developed to a stage where cell specialization occurs and gives rise to all of the body’s tissues and organs. Specifically, mature stem cells harvested from patients were introduced to embryonic stem cells from donors; this exchange of genetic information subsequently lead the embryonic cells to be reprogrammed after the patient’s cells. The single resulting patient-specific stem cell developed fully into its differentiation or “blastocyst” phase. The significance of this is that once developed to the blastocyst phase, stem cells are then ready for harvesting and transplanting to needy patients.
A summary of the findings in Nature notes this is the first documented instance where researchers have managed to develop a blastocyst stem cell of this kind that didn’t mysteriously stop developing and revert back to its embryonic stage.
There is one rather complex element of the research that needs further investigation and refining before any wide biomedical application of these findings is possible. According to one of the project’s lead researchers, “the cells are not therapeutically relevant at the moment,” reports the New York Times.
Again, with reference to the article in Nature: in trials where DNA of the donor embryo was removed prior to introducing the patient’s adult stem cell, the resulting stem cell would inevitably arrest development and revert back to its embryonic stage. However, in trials where the donor’s embryonic cells retained their single (“haploid”) set of chromosomes in addition to the double (“diploid”) set contained in the patient’s stem cells, making the resulting stem cell “triploid,” the stem cell developed to the blastocyst state. Triploidy is, however, an untenable amount of chromosomes to posses, as it is associated with the later development of cancer(s). Two steps forward, one step back, and so on.
The implication to take away from this more generally, though, is that cloned stem cells could one day be applied therapeutically to treat or cure various devastating degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or diabetes. Lest we forget, were it not for two-terms, that’s eight years of restrictive Bush administration hell-bent on saving the collective immortal soul of America through prayer and anti-science policies, Americans might have been witness to breakthrough stem cell research like this years ago.
Certainly, there are potential ethical concerns to be discussed here too; however, by default those opposed to any and all kinds of stem cell research just out of principle are, happily, to be left out of the discussion, consigned to be ignored by the science community.
Insoo Hyun, professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, describes how some clone-critics gravitate towards the outlandish science fiction scenarios, and cite them as probable consequences to cloning-research:
“Every technology has a good use and has a bad use. And the reasonable response to this fact is not to ban this technology altogether, but it’s to prevent the abuses of this.”
Despite ethical and political considerations, it appears breakthroughs in stem cell research of this kind will only increase with frequency in the coming years. Not long from now we may look back upon this particular breakthrough for what it really is: one of a succession of steps of its kind that lead to the elimination of some of the most insidious diseases of our time.