Controlling Cells

A great deal of effort is going towards establishing the knowledge and tools necessary for control over our cells. Stem cell research is a good example, as typified by this work:

Researchers at Jefferson Medical College have found a new way to coax bone marrow stem cells into becoming dopamine-producing neurons. If the method proves reliable, the work may ultimately lead to new therapies for neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease, which is marked by a loss of dopamine-making cells in the brain.

Much of the most important, if not most immediately productive, stem cell research concerns control over cellular differentiation:

Cellular differentiation is a concept from developmental biology describing the process by which cells acquire a "type". The morphology of a cell may change dramatically during differentiation, but the genetic material remains the same, with few exceptions.

A cell that is able to differentiate into many cell types is known as pluripotent. These cells are called stem cells in animals and meristematic cells in higher plants. A cell that is able to differentiate into all cell types is known as totipotent. In mammals, only the zygote and early embryonic cells are totipotent, while in plants, many differentiated cells can become totipotent with simple laboratory techniques.

Scientists are current working to understand the triggers and mechanisms of differentiation in pluripotent and totipotent stem cells. Even the limited success to date has produced some surprisingly effective potential therapies. Ultimately, the aim is to be able to understand and control the mechanism of potency - thus enabling any cell to be transformed into any other type of cell. The result of all this work would be low cost, efficient regenerative medicine. Age-damaged or injured tissue? No problem, just grow a fresh, undamaged replacement in culture from your own healthy cells.

Of course, some age-related damage affects all of your cells. Your telomeres - protective caps on the ends of your chromosomes, regulators of planned cell death - grow shorter as you age, and this (most likely) leads to cancer. Cancer research is another broad area within which many groups can be found working to understand and control our cells. Take this, for example:

Metastasis is a major problem with cancer because it allows tumor cells to spread to other parts of the body (See Supporting Material: Cancer and Metastasis). While solid tumors can be removed surgically or treated with chemotherapy or radiation, metastatic cells that have already entered the circulation are capable of opening a passageway through blood vessels in order to spread to various organs throughout the body.


To support their approach, Cheresh, Weis, and their colleagues demonstrate that mice that are genetically deficient in the Src gene are resistant to tumor cell metastasis. Furthermore, blocking Src in normal mice dramatically protects the mice against metastatic tumors because it keeps the cancer cells "sandbagged" in the bloodstream where they are vulnerable to attack and clearance from the immune system.

Our bodies are complex machines made up of complex machines; progress in modern medicine is all about understanding and controlling the smallest of these machines. Technologies to halt aging, cancer and disease will eventually result from these efforts. The more public support that exists for this work, the faster it will go, and the better our future becomes.

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