If you're not up on the basics of stem cells and their relationship to the future of medicine (or even if you think you are), you should read the excellent introduction at InfoAging before carrying on with the rest of today's post. InfoAging really is an enormously useful site. It manages to simply and easily explain many of the wonders of modern medicine and the aging process for non-scientists amongst us.
If you keep up with news on politics or research, you have no doubt heard a lot about the number of stem cell lines available to researchers in the US (and the rest of the world, for that matter). A stem cell line is a growing collection of similar cells, all cultured from a stem cell. Lines can continue to divide and grow for a long time, and so researchers can continually draw cells from lines for research. If you want to do reliable stem cell research, you need a reliable source of stem cells - hence the lines. Without them, no research.
Read on to see why this matters a great deal:
A Harvard researcher, fed up with the unavailability of federally allowed lines, raised private, philanthropic funding to create more stem cell lines.
"I and others in the field have found it very difficult to obtain the cells on the NIH registry. Six to nine months would pass (before we got a response)," Melton said. "I sort of gave up on trying a couple years ago and focused my efforts on creating my own."
It's a sad state of affairs that the above quote even exists. These new lines will be given away, such is the great need for them (and Stephen at the Speculist comments, sadly, that this should be a campaign issue). Issues surrounding the current US policy on stem cell lines have been in the media for a while - politicians have in essence been openly, bald-facedly lying about the number of lines available and the effects of their policies ever since the current legislation was put in place.
Uncertainty over the future of stem cell and therapeutic cloning policies, as well as other anti-research efforts affecting stem cell medicine, have been scaring away private funding. In most cases, private funding is looking for a profit, and there's no profit if your product is made illegal. Medical research and commercialization is notoriously expensive, and so potential investors are very wary and risk averse.
Why are stem cell lines so important? I partially answered this question above: stem cells don't just materialize from thin air. Researchers need stem cells in order to carry out experiments, determine how stem cells work, and develop therapies for the many conditions that can be cured using stem cells. Reliable science requires reliable sources of stem cells. In order to properly characterize the way in which stem cells behave, something of the order of 1000 stem cell lines will eventually be needed.
The current lines are just a small drop in the bucket of what is necessary for medical science to boldly stride forward into the era of regenerative medicine. Regenerative medicine already shows - even in its infancy - strong signs of being able produce cures for every known degenerative condition and ways to heal every known type of injury. Cures for diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, burns, bone loss, nerve damage and much more have already been demonstrated in petri dishes, in mice and in a few human trials. This is not pie in the sky science. It's very real.
This is what stem cells and stem cell lines should be mean to you: the assurance that scientists are working to cure the diseases and conditions of aging that you will one day suffer. Without widespread and easy access to these lines, this work will not proceed.