More On Stem Cell Work From Randall Parker

Randall Parker makes some helpful observations on scientific progress towards controlling stem cells:

I think it is inevitable that methods will be found to dedifferentiate (i.e. make less specialized or less committed to a single purpose) both adult stem cell types and fully specialized cell types (e.g. liver cells or skin fibroblast cells) to turn these cells back into less differentiated stem cells and even all the way back into embryonic stem cells. So for the production of motor neurons we will not always be limited to starting with embryonic stem cells to pass them through that 2 week window in early embryonic development during which embryonic stem cells can be converted into motor neurons. In fact, compounds that cause cellular dedifferentiation have already been found. I expect many more techniques for dediffentiating cells will be found.

Think of cells as enormously complex state machines. Currently it is much easier (though not easy in an absolute sense) to coax cells to switch from the embryonic state into other states. The reason for this is pretty obvious: Cells in the embryonic state must be capable of transitioning through a series of steps into all the other states (e.g. to the state that heart muscle cells are in or the state that liver cells are in or the state that insulin-secreting Pancreatic Isles of Langerham cells are in) because embryos develop to produce cells in all those states. They must have that capacity or else a full organism couldn't develop starting from an embryo. However, just because there are some cell state transitions that do not happen under normal conditions of development that doesn't mean that those transitions can't be made to happen with the right (and waiting to be discovered) sequences of hormones, growth factors, gene therapies, and other stimuli.

Just because some day we will have methods to turn non-embryonic cell types into all other cell types that does not mean that avoidance of the use of hESCs in developing therapies has no future cost in terms of the health of some fraction of the human population. There is a very real possibility that hESCs can be developed for some therapeutic uses faster than other cell types can be developed for all uses. My guess is that at least for some purposes hESCs will be ready to provide treatments faster than adult stem cell types can be coaxed to do the same. We will see more research results such as this paper offering the possibilty of a cell therapy treatment for which the development of alternative non-hESC based cell therapy treatments are a more distant prospect.

I view research into stem cell based regenerative medicine as a real boon - in addition to all the obvious end goals, it is forcing scientists to uncover, understand and eventually manipulate the fundamental workings of our cells. Much like cancer research and AIDS research required the development of new basic science that has proven its worth across the board, stem cell research is spurring development of a scientific groundwork for the advanced medicine of decades to come.

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