If Progress Was Easy, It Would Be Done Already

It's never all plain sailing in medical science, biotechnology and related areas of research that are of interest to supporters of healthy life extension. I don't generally look at the failures here or at the Longevity Meme - I assume we've all seen more than enough failure to know what it looks like, and that it is pervasive. I also assume that we know what follows failure for those dedicated enough to keep working: eventual success.

So it irks me that some of those who stand in opposition to scientific progress take the lazy shortcut of seizing upon a given failure and holding it up as evidence of impossibility. Bah. People failed to fly for a long time before they finally did, and a great deal of flying is happening these days.

Stem cell therapies - and indeed anything that involves manipulating exceedingly complex and not fully understood chunks of our biochemistry - is inherently challenging. There are failures all over the world, every day; this is how scientists learn.

The team injected the cells into the brains of rats, which had been given a chemical that causes damage similar to that seen in Parkinson's. The new cells integrated into the animals' brains and produced copious amounts of dopamine. As a result, the animals' motor coordination improved almost to the point of being normal, according to the report in yesterday's online edition of the journal Nature Medicine.

But when the animals were autopsied after three months and their brains were examined microscopically, the team found multiple tumors, indicating that some of the injected cells did not settle into the job of being neurons but rather had begun to grow uncontrollably.


Thomas Okarma, president of Geron, a California company that hopes to gain Food and Drug Administration permission to treat spinal-cord-injury patients with modified embryonic stem cells next year, said his company's cells have shown no sign of causing tumor growth in any of its animal studies.

But he said the FDA has asked for additional extensive data on exactly that question before it will give its final okay.

"What they worry about, and rightly so, is there are rogue undifferentiated cells lurking in the cell population that we haven't detected," Okarma said.

Geron cultivates its embryonic stem cells differently than others, he said, adding that no tumors have been seen in animals up to nine months after injections into the rodents' injured spinal cords. Moreover, he said, the cells survive and help the animals recover, in part by secreting special factors that spur new nerve growth around the injury.

Some people don't understand the nature of change, to the point of failing to see that success comes from clever persistence in the face of failure. Don't be one of those people, and you'll go far in life.

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