Ethical Stem Cell Research Continues to Advance

By Wesley J. Smith

Editor’s note. This appeared on Wesley’s great blog at www.firstthings.com/blogs/secondhandsmoke/2011/04/05/ethical-stem-cell-research-continues-to-advance/

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan and others have turned adult skin cells into human embryonic stem cells, without using an embryo.

The days of embryonic stem cells as “the only hope” are long gone.  Sure scientists still talk about them as the “gold standard” and media still pound the drum, but the paint is fast peeling off that meme. Moreover, the field is only inching forward scientifically as it is proving very hard to harness cells meant to create differentiated tissues in gestating embryos and fetuses.  On the cloning front, SCNT [somatic cell nuclear transfer] seems stalled…

Meanwhile, ethical stem cell research continues to roar.  Example: In Japan, scientists have discovered the chemical that induces bone marrow to produce healing cells.  From the story [www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-12956636]:

The chemical which summons stem cells from bone marrow to the site of a wound has been discovered by scientists in the UK and Japan. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, identified the distress signal – HMGB1. The authors believe it can be used to put “a megaphone in the system” to improve the treatment of injuries such as burns and leg ulcers.  Bone marrow was thought to play a role in repairing damaged skin, but the exact process was unknown. Scientists at Osaka University and King’s College London gave mice bone marrow cells that glow green – which can be tracked while moving round the body.

They then wounded the mice and some were given skin grafts. In mice without grafts, very few stem cells travelled to the wound. Those with grafts had many stem cells travelling to the wound. Professor John McGrath, from King’s College London, says grafted skin tissue has no blood vessels and therefore no oxygen. He says this environment leads to the release of HMGB1 – or what he called a ‘Save Our Skin signal’ – which results in stem cells moving to the wound. He said: “It could have a very big impact on regenerative medicine for treating people with rare genetic illnesses and more common problems such as burns and ulcers. “It could potentially revolutionise the management of wound healing.”

…Meanwhile, on the IPSC [induced pluripotent stem cells] front, [Dr. Shinya] Yamanaka–who refused to use embryonic stem cells because he saw his own children in them–has increased the efficiency of a method of creating pluripotent stem cells that don’t appear to cause tumors. [Editor’s note. In a 2007 story in the New York Times, Yamanka recalls looking at a down the microscope at a human embryo.  “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters.”]

… President George W. Bush was right: We can have our regenerative medical science and our ethics too.

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