I (mostly) left aside commentary on stem cell news for all of six days. Much of the current crop of column inches is not worth bothering with - biased polls, political posturing, talking heads chewing things over and pushing various party lines back and forth. This circus is, however, managing to educate the public about the possibilities of regenerative medicine. Cures for age-related degeneration and resulting longer, healthier lives have become very plausible; the first wave of new, effective regenerative therapies could be as little as ten years away. With these ideas planted, it will become much easier to talk about serious anti-aging research and projects designed to accelerate the rate of progress in this field.
Here are a few of the more worthy odds and ends, starting with the news that Bill Gates is helping to fund the Proposition 71 initiative:
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has contributed 400-thousand dollars to the campaign backing a California ballot measure that would make billions of dollars available for human embryonic stem cell research and cloning projects.
The Proposition 71 organization has been amassing money and high-power endorsements at an amazing rate. They're up to $12 million already - the count was officially $7 million only ten days ago. At this rate they're going to have millions left over after the November ballot ... to fund appropriate medical research, perhaps?
A few items from Betterhumans in recent days note small steps forward in adult stem cell research. Firstly, work on understanding how to transform bone marrow progenitor cells into bone cells:
A chemical that turns stem cells into bone cells could provide a basis for treating bone-weakening diseases such as osteoporosis, and possibly other diseases involving cell loss such as such as arthritis and Parkinson's.
While stem cell therapy is promising, however, there are still challenges hindering its use. One of the biggest challenges to their use is coaxing them to become specialized cells, a process called cellular differentiation. Determining what signals drive stem cells to differentiate into specific mature cells is considered essential for their use.
Osteoporosis is one of the many common age-related conditions we need to beat. It doesn't get the press that cancer and heart disease do, but you really don't want to suffer from it.
Researchers at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada believe that the cells they have identified could be stem cells capable of generating the insulin-producing beta cells that type 1 diabetics lack. These cells could be transplanted into the pancreas of diabetics to stimulate the production of insulin.
Discussions of stem cell science often overlook just how much work has gone into being able to simply identify stem cells in a reliable way.
Onwards to a very typical example of an article noting that all parties in US politics are lying, exaggerating and spinning on the topic of stem cells. Like most such pieces, it focuses on Federal funding policy when the real problems are elsewhere.
Stem cell research has eclipsed gay marriage as the leading social issue of the presidential campaign. Creative politicking by Democrats and Republicans alike has obscured the truth of what the president's policy does and, just as importantly, what effect it's having on research into treatments for diseases from Alzheimer's to diabetes.
As with so much in emerging science, the answer is not nearly so neat as either campaign would have you believe.
Oh, and the polling - the endless polling. Three short commentaries from Chris Mooney on polls and stem cells:
People have heard a lot more about the issue since March of 2002, and when asked whether it's more important to "conduct research" or "protect embryos," 52 percent now say "conduct research." In March 2002 that was only 43 percent.
So in short, even if you bias the question wording very strongly, almost half of Americans now support embryonic stem cell research. Moreover, this is a new development, representing a true sea change in public opinion that has clearly occurred during the past three years.
The new data show that more people know about stem cell research than ever before, and that apparently as a result, the majority favoring the research has increased from 63 percent (versus 21 percent opposed) to 73 percent (versus 11 percent opposed).
I'm also getting very sick of the use of this term, "human cloning," to describe the cloning of embryos for research purposes. I think we should call that what it is: pro-life rhetoric. Plain and simple.
In summary, then, Kolata's article provides a fascinating overview of the science and the constraints it's facing. I think she downplays the positive results so far--no mention of the success in using mouse embryonic stem cells to create insulin producing pancreatic cells, for example--but there's a hard-headed attempt at realism on her part. We need more of this.
Gearhart and Faden are up front about the problem of uncertainty: "In no cases are cures guaranteed, and even in the most promising areas, reliable cures are years, in some cases as much as five to 10 years, away." They don't go in for faith-based adult stem cell boosterism. They make the very important (and often missed) point about the need for disease-specific embryonic stem cell lines. They expose the piddling amount of money the NIH has invested in this field for what it is.
Adult stem cell research is indeed getting the lions share of public funding - not that this is really all that meaningful in the larger context. Private and philanthropic funding outweigh public funding for medical research, but investors are much less likely to invest while politicians are trying hard to ban essential parts of the technology in question.
Meanwhile, adult stem cell transplants - a whole different branch of stem cell medicine that is closer in concept to bone marrow transplants and blood transfusions than the more debated areas of stem cell research - are getting much more common:
Transplanting stem cells from a healthy woman to her sister with severe rheumatoid arthritis apparently cured the disease, researchers report in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism.
Her morning stiffness disappeared before she was discharged from the hospital and did not recur. Her rheumatoid nodules were completely gone 9 months after transplantation and now one year later the patient is disease-free and is not taking any drugs to suppress her immune system.
Scientists back embryonic stem cell research because it appears to give a greater chance of developing regenerative therapies for common age-related conditions. "Stem cells taken from a patient's own muscle or blood failed to make functioning heart cells. Those adult stem cells homed in on damaged heart tissue and latched on, but never got the rhythm the rest of the heart ticked to ... Some of the patients in the study did improve after the therapy .. the [adult] cells may have recruited new blood vessels to the injured area and helped speed the healing." By way of comparison, "the embryonic cells did not just latch onto the wounded heart ... they actually became heart muscle cells that beat in time with the rest of the organ."
Finally, a New York Times piece on the goals and progress of some stem cell researchers:
At three laboratories here, separated by a taxi ride of no more than 10 or 15 minutes, the world of stem cell research can be captured in all its complexity, promise and diversity ...