Thursday, June 07, 2007

Cell Wars: A New Hype

Have you heard the news!!???

Skin cells can be reprogrammed into embryonic stem cells! We don't need to destroy blastocysts after all. All you need to do is scratch your nose, clean the debris out from under your fingernails, infect them with a virus and... voila! you've got pluripotent stem cells!

The New York Times - not to mention all the other papers that syndicated this news - had the story on their front pages. Nature printed a nice lay summary of this issue, too.

Wait a minute... Is this true?

Before I go on, I must remind you that I am a bioengineering graduate student who works with human embryonic stem (ES) cells. By my estimation, this both qualifies me to comment on this issue, and slightly colors my opinions. I applaud this work as instrumental in pushing forward regenerative medicine. These findings do not provide scientific competition for the projects I work with. My chief concern is with the way that pols, pundits and hypers will use this as evidence to invalidate the important work that scientists working with human embryonic stem cells are doing. I have chosen to use a few spare electrons to relay my early impressions about how this information is being transmitted to the public. Others (namely an excellent post by Mark at Denialism) have relayed scientific critiques of these papers.

Between last night and this morning, I read all three of these reports, and the science is looks pretty good. Just so you know, the techniques that these findings rely on were first reported a year ago (Cell 126, 663-676, August 25, 2006). This made a splash in the scientific community, but did not make so much impact in the lay press. Chances are that you remember the amniotic stem cell report more than the skin cell reprogramming. Why was that?

Well... It just so happened that the paper by Atala et al about amniotic stem cells came out at the same time as Federal legislators were debating stem cell bills (Recall that human embryonic stem cells were part of Pelosi's priorities for the first 100 hours of 110th Congress?) If you have interacted with the media at all, you know that the US House and Senate have passed their versions of a bill that would expand Federal support for human ES cell research, and that George Bush has threatened a veto of this bill. (Remember that his first veto came six years into the presidency on the first version of this bill.) It looks as though it is borderline whether there are enough votes for the override. According to the AP,
Democratic congressional leaders arranged to dispatch the measure today (June 7) to the White House with a flourish.
What a coincidence that this alternative to embryonic stem cell research is announced on the same day! Hmmmm... These are the seeds of a conspiracy theory, and I'm not the only one to notice. Evidently,
"whenever lawmakers are debating stem cells, you can guarantee some study about adult stem cells will be released," said a frustrated Senate Democratic aide about the reports.
If you need anything more to convince you of how politics and stem cells are mixed up, see this NYTimes article. I wanted to quote half of its text in this entry.

Along with Mark at Denialism and Alex at The Daily Transcript, I agree that these findings have great potential to move stem cell therapies into the clinic. As far as the science is concerned, my main concern is that the gene therapy methods used to modify these cells are inexact (and still potentially dangerous). These modifications are known (reported even in one of the papers) to cause uncontrollable tumors called teratomas. Specifically, Science magazine reports that:
the Yamanaka study showed a big downside to the strategy. The only author to study the offspring of the chimeras after birth, he observed that 20% of the 121 mice developed tumors. That finding, Yamanaka notes, shows the danger of using retroviral vectors, which can turn on cancer-causing genes.
What the press buries deep in its reports (I have yet to hear anyone talk about it on the radio) is the difference between mouse and human cells. Rudy Jaenisch, a fair bet for the title, 'stem cell expert,' and author on two of the recent papers indicated his perspective on when this will be used in humans.
"This is really dangerous. We would never transplant these into a patient." In his view, research into embryonic stem cells made by cloning remains "absolutely essential."
My concern is that the press will not pay attention to this appeal, and everyone else will never hear about it. This debate is being framed as adult vs. embryonic stem cell research, when really it should be adult AND embryonic stem cell research. The public wants to fund research. They want to fund embryonic stem cell research, and they want to fund adult stem cell research. (I hear that they do not want to fund a war.) That this is being presented as an either-or argument kindof makes me sick!

So why are we hyping this so much? The Daily Transcript projects a Nobel Prize for Yamanaka and Takahashi, the pioneering skin-to-stem cell scientists! I hope if that happens that they share the award with Jaime Thomson, the scientist who first derived lines of human ES cells.

This may turn out to be another great discovery, or it may go the way of previously hyped adult stem cell work. As with everything else, only time will tell. But you can be sure I will continue to point out where I think stem cell science has been misrepresented by the press, politicians or my lab coworkers.


thomas said...


For some reason, I was doing a search on stem cells, and came across this article. Last year in the Human Life Review, an Australian physician wrote a piece connecting Pandora, Prometheus, stem cells and skin from your nose. And by another twist of fate, he's the SAME guy I referred to in a post I made a month ago referring to an Australian opponent to embryonic stem cell research.


Kelly Hills said...

You say "whoa" I hear "there is no spoon".


I'm glad you're around to comment on this stuff. I think you might just be the only scientist working with hESC with such a strong background and interest in bioethics, which makes a big difference in the level of discussion, but also scientific accuracy and honesty.

thomas said...

Oh - I get it now. The spoon you are referring to is from The Matrix! Good one.