Stem Cell Research Roundup

All the recent exiting advances in aging research and activism have left little room to report some of the very interesting news on stem cell research that have continued unabated over the past few weeks. So here is a quick roundup of the items that I think are important enough to note.

Firstly, and to the sound of much rejoicing from the activists involved, the California stem cell funding initiative has qualified for the November ballot.

The California Secretary of State's office announced today that the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative has qualified for placement on the November 2, 2004 General Election statewide ballot. Supporters submitted more than one million signatures in April, nearly double the amount required for certification.

You can read more about the inititative in the press release, or at the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative website. Getting on the ballot is just the first step, and the organization is still asking for volunteers at all levels of effort and support.

Secondly, researchers who have been hunting for alternatives to embryonic stem cells have been claiming some progress recently. I am cautious, as we've heard premature claims about adult stem cell efficacy before. There is a great deal of ideological pressure from certain quarters to demonstrate that adult stem cells can be made to perform as well as embryonic stem cells.

Adult stem cells have been found in the pancreas that appear to be as potent as stem cells taken from embryos.

The stem cells, extracted by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute and the University of L?beck in Germany, reproduce well and are able to differentiate into many different cell types.

"An easily accessible source for the extraction of highly potent stem cells has been discovered, in almost any vertebrate but also in the human body, regardless of sex and age," say the researchers.

So a cautiously optimistic wait and see approach is best here, I think. There will no doubt be all the normal calls to abandon embryonic research, but it shouldn't take more than a year for other teams to follow up on this in depth. As I've pointed out before, we simply don't know enough about stem cells yet to determine whether adult stem cell research alone is sufficient.

Meanwhile, another group of researchers is seeing some success in turning ordinary fat cells into other types of cells.

"We have demonstrated that within fat tissue there is a population of stromal cells that can differentiate into different types of cells with many of the characteristics of neuronal and glial cells," said Duke's Kristine Safford, first author of the paper. "These findings support more research into developing adipose tissue as a viable source for cellular-based therapies."

Over the past several years, Duke scientists have demonstrated the ability to reprogram these adipose-derived adult stromal cells into fat, cartilage and bone cells. All of these cells arise from mesenchymal, or connective tissue, parentage. However, the latest experiments have demonstrated that researchers can transform these cells from fat into a totally different lineage.

Earlier this year, Duke researchers demonstrated that these adipose-derived cells are truly adult stem cells. As a source of cells for treatment, adipose tissue is not only limitless, it does not carry the potentially charged ethical or political concerns as other stem cell sources, the researchers said.

"This is a big step to take undifferentiated cells that haven't committed to a particular future and redirect them to develop down a different path," said Duke surgeon Henry Rice, M.D., senior member of the research team. "Results such as these challenge the traditional dogma that once cells become a certain type of tissue they are locked into that destiny. While it appears that we have awakened a new pathway of development, the exact trigger for this change is still not known."

Randall Parker has the following to say about attempts to manipulate adult stem cells:

The problem of how to change differentiated cells (cells specialized to perform particular functions) into less differentiated cells is obviously very solvable. Differentiation of cells into specialized types is not a one way street. This should not be too surprising. Cells are made up of matter and matter is malleable. The arrangement of the cellular matter that determines cellular type (known as epigenetic information) is becoming steadily more malleable with each discovery of how to manipulate cells. Recently Scripps researchers found a compound they labelled reversine that converts differentiated cells into stem cells. They had to search through only 50,000 compounds to find one that would do that. Surely there are huge numbers of other compound waiting to be discovered that will dedifferentiate (i.e. despecialize) cells to thru them back into stem cells and even turn them all the way back into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells may turn out to provide a starting point for therapy development that allows the more rapid development of some types cell therapies. But there is no treatment that can be developed from embryonic stem cells that won't also eventually be solvable using adult stem cells or fully adult differentiated cells as starting points. Of course, in the short term one can understand why those who have no moral qualms about using embryonic stem cells want to see them used to develop therapies. Embryonic stem cells may save some lives. But for those who will need cell therapy-based treatments in the medium to long term the debate about embryonic stem cell therapy will probably have no impact on the availability of treatments.

I'll point to the costs of delay to quantify "some lives" in that comment - it's a lot more than "some" if embryonic research brings therapies even a single year closer. More like millions. We simply don't know enough at this stage to put aside embryonic stem cell research.

On that note, on to politics next. Scientists are attempting to block a United Nations ban on therapeutic cloning through organized action and a conference on stem cell research and human cloning.

The Genetics Policy Institute and scientific leaders in the biomedical research community have come to the United Nations today to openly discuss the repercussion of an international ban on therapeutic cloning and draw a clear distinction between unethical reproductive cloning and this lifesaving science," said GPI Executive Director Bernard Siegel. "We have gathered the leading scientists from four continents including an historic visit to New York City from notable South Korean scientists, Drs. Hwang and Moon, to dispel the confusion and myths about stem cell research."

Last year, GPI successfully led a grassroots effort to defend therapeutic cloning research in the United Nations, which was considering a ban on all forms of cloning research, including therapeutic cloning. After contentious debate the deliberations were deferred until October 2004.

"A UN vote to ban this important scientific research would be tragic and destroy the hopes of millions suffering from Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, cancer, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, ALS and other devastating conditions for which no cure is known," Siegel said. "Every human being is affected by this vote and that is why GPI is leading an international grassroots constituency to fight for medial research for cures. People need to know that therapeutic research, which is not reproductive cloning, will lead to breakthrough cures such as creating replacement tissue that the human body won't reject."

I maintain an action page on this topic at the Longevity Meme, and I advise you all to contact your elected representatives on this issue. A UN ban on this vital medical technology will greatly slow progress towards curing age-related conditions and extending healthy life span.

Back in the US, there is continuing motion towards forcing a change in federal anti-research legislation that has been causing great harm to private and public reseach funding. We'll see how that goes, but I don't expect much from the politicians who caused the problem in the first place. Scientists are already five years - and thus tens of millions of avoidable deaths - behind in medical research relating to stem cells and regenerative medicine. We could have been so much further ahead...

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