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Human stem cells

Technique developed to
reprogram adult stem cells

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Types of stem cells:

Recapping information in this section of stem cells:

bullet Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent. That is, they have the potential of developing into any of the 220 cell types in the human body (e.g. blood cells, heart cells, brain cells, muscle cells, bone cells, etc). Unfortunately, they can only be obtained from embryos. This causes very serious ethical problems among those who believe that human life becomes a human person at conception. This concern has slowed embryonic stem cell research to a crawl in most western countries with the exception of the UK.
bullet Adult stem cells: These can be harvested from newborns, children and adults with very few ethical concerns. However, they have already started to specialize and thus do not have the same level of flexibility as do embryonic stem cells. They can only be coaxed into replicating a narrow range of cell types.

In late 2007, a technique was proven in principle that can reprogram adult stem cells so that they have many of the same properties and potential of embryonic stem cells. This may completely revolutionize future research techniques, allow government research funding to be increased, and offer hope to the approximately 100 million Americans who suffer from a wide range of debilitating diseases and disorders that may eventually be treated or cured with stem cells.

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Reprogramming techniques developed:

In 2007-JUN, a medical research group led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan announced a new technique that reprogrammed adult skin cells taken from mice so that they exhibit many of the properties of embryonic stem cells. They found four genetic factors that reprogrammed the mouse cells in to "Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells. Their technique involves:

bullet Harvesting a living cell from the skin of a mouse.
bullet Implanting four genes into a retrovirus.
bullet Injecting the retrovirus into the skin cell where it copies its RNA genome into the DNA of the mouse cell's chromosomes. 1

The four genes reprogram the skin cell to act in many ways like embryonic stem cells.

Two research teams announced publicly on 2007-NOV-21 that the technique has been replicated using human skin cells. Dr. Yamanaka's group reprogrammed skin sells taken from the face of a 36-year-old woman; their article appeared in Cell magazine. The other was a team led by Junying Yu, working with James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin who used cells from the amputated foreskin of a newborn; their paper appeared in Science magazine.

The technique is in its earliest stages of development. However, it may eventually result in treatments and cures for a wide range of disorders and diseases. It may allow the creation of:

bullet Nerve cells to repair spinal court injuries and cure paralysis.
bullet Blood cells and bone marrow to treat leukemia.
bullet Pancreatic cells to cure diabetes.
bullet Brain cells to treat Parkinson's and Alzheimer's patients.
bullet Heart cells to repair cardiac muscles
bullet Liver cells to regenerate livers damaged by cirrhosis and other diseases.
bullet etc.

The technique may revolutionize:

bullet Organ and tissue transplants by allowing the generation of entire replacement organs without any possibility of rejection by the body,
bullet Research into human genetic defects,
bullet Cancer research,
bullet Screening new drugs for toxicity in advance of human trials,
bullet etc.

Only embryonic stem cells had earlier offered such promise; however they were plagued with ethical concerns. They also presented practical problems, like the difficulty of obtaining a sufficient number of embryos for large-scale treatment.

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bullet Dr. Janet Rossant chief of research at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and deputy scientific director of the Canadian Stem Cell Network said:

"It's really quite remarkable. ... This is early days, this is proof of principle, but I think this is very encouraging that these cells are being reprogrammed into a state that has many of the properties of an embryonic stem cell. ......these two studies show, relatively conclusively, that at least in principle, ... you can take adult human cells ... and just by adding the right genes making a change in gene expression patterns, you can turn them into cells that, at least in culture, resemble human embryonic stem cells." 2

bullet Dr Robert Lanza, chief science office of Advanced Cell Technology in Los Angeles, CA, said:

"It's a bit like learning how to turn lead into gold."

bullet Dr. James Thompson who, in 1988, discovered human embryonic stem cells said:

"People didn't know it would be this easy. Thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow.''

bullet Dr. Deepak Srivastava, director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, said:

"Dr. Yamanaka's work is monumental in its importance to the field of stem cell science and its potential impact on our ability to accelerate the benefits of this technology to the bedside. Not only does this discovery enable more research, it offers a new pathway to apply the benefits of stem cells to human disease."

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The technique involves the injection of four genes into an adult cell that disrupts the cell's DNA. This may cause cancer. Dr. Rossant noted that the cells cannot be used in their current state for patient treatment. She said:

"We don't know how exactly to control the expression of these genes. It's not clear that these cells would be used for treating patients at this point. ... I feel that this area is moving very fast. There is a lot of potential for understanding biology of disease with this kind of approach. ..."

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Political aspects:

President Bush's team is claiming some of the credit for the development of this technique.  On 2007-NOV-20, Karl Zinsmeister, the chief domestic policy adviser to President Bush, said in an interview:

"If you set reasonable parameters and offer a lot of encouragement and public funding, science will solve this dilemma, and you don't have to have a culture war about this." 3

Dr James Thomson, said the restrictions placed on embryonic stem cell research may have slowed discovery of the new technique, since scientists needed to study embryonic cells first before they could figure out how to do the same thing without using embryos. He said:

"My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back four or five years." 3

That represents a great deal of suffering and loss of life among the tens of millions of Americans if their future treatments and cures are thus delayed. 3

Some suggest that because of the uncertainties related to this new technique, that attempts should continue to release embryonic stem cell research from its current federal funding restrictions.

bullet Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) said:

"I don't think this changes the debate. We still need to encourage all types of research, and we need to put ethical oversight in place." 3

bullet Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, MA said:

"While this is exciting basic research, it could still take years to get this to work in humans in a way that could be used clinically. I cannot overstate that this is early-stage research and that we should not abandon other areas of stem cell research." 3

bullet Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) described the new developments as "extraordinary scientific breakthroughs. " However, he said that embryonic stem cell research must continue.

"Instead of aiding that fight, the Bush administration is hampering it through needless restrictions on stem cell research and by denying NIH the funds it needs to capitalize on new advances" 3

Anti-Bush comments from readers of the Washington Post article 3 are rather brutal. 4

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Gladstone scientist's Japan lab reprograms human adult stem cells," San Francisco Business Times, 2007-NOV-20, at:
  2.  Megan Ogilvie, "The 'ethical' stem cell is born," Toronto Star, 2007-NOV-21, at:
  3. Michael Abramowitz and Rick Weiss, "A Scientific Advance, a Political Question Mark," Washington Post, 2007-NOV-21, Page A04, at:
  4. Comments on : A scientific advance..." are at:

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Copyright 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2007-NOV-21
Latest update: 2007-NOV-21
Compiled by B.A. Robinson

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