A lot of the stem cell debate has been spun to ridicule pro life types, and to accuse Bush as hardhearted for “politicizing” science. One result of the spin has been that the very real and widespread successes with adult stem cells get little publicity, while the press tends to hype scientifically limited “breakthroughs” by companies who seek to benefit from state tax funding for their research.
Yet stem cells (adult, umbillical cord, from miscarriages, or from embryos) have the potential to be as helpful a breakthrough as Penicillin or vaccines in saving lives.

The reason for trying to use embryonic stem cells was that they were less mature and were thought to be easier to mold into the cells you needed to make an organ or to fix a damaged organ. They also produced less of an immune response than adult tranplants. But their DNA wouldn’t match, so although embryonic stem cell research was touted as a cure all, the dirty little secret is that you would probably have to clone (i.e. put in the correct DNA) to have it work.
So voila, just clone…but cloning is complicated: open a tiny cell, take out the nucleus and put a new nucleus in… but it’s not a perfect match…the Mitochondrial DNA still doesn’t match.

Ironically, there are ways to clone without destroying embryos: called the “vigin birth” method, you take DNA from an adult cell, stick it into an egg, zap it and voila, instant pre embryo tissue that probably doesn’t have the ability to be an embryo.

The problem is that either method doesn’t always work, so you’d need a lot of eggs or pre embryos to get enough cells to use.

Yet each egg has to come from a woman, and since the going rate for an egg is twenty thousand in Boston, the scientists would have probably started an “egg providing” business similar to the transplant businesses that exploit poor people in Asia.

So although Catholics and some Evangelical Christians object to the embryonic stem cells (but maybe not to the virgin birth clones), there is still a major ethical problem: Few articles bring it up, but most religions agree the Big Guy thinks that rich people exploiting the poor is a no no, and most good Marxists would agree.

So now we have an alternative that can let you supply your own stem cells.

The new discovery is being published online today in Cell, in a paper by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco, and in Science, in a paper by James A. Thomson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Thomson’s work received some federal money….

The reprogrammed cells, the scientists report, appear to behave very much like human embryonic stem cells but were called “induced pluripotent stem cells,” meaning cells that can change into many different types.

So how important is this?

Well, the UKTelegraph suggests that having a cheaper, abundent and genetically matched stem cell essentially puts the clone industry out of business– and probably eliminates the major impetus in making animal/human chimeras (i.e. to use as organ donors).

And adult stem cells are already being used widely for many disease. Getting the adult stem cells to go back to an even earlier stage opens the possibility of regrowing organs and healing injured organs.

Still a question is if the adult stem cells will degenerate into cancer (a problem with embryonic stem cells also). But as a whole, the field now has a cheaper and more abundent source of stem cells.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes medical essays at HeyDoc Xanga Blog. 

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