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Jun 21 2013

Stem cells march on

Regenerative medicine is coming and when it does it could transform medical care more dramatically than the development of antibiotics to treat infections and blood transfusions to save trauma patients combined. Here’s how it might work:

IN PRINCIPLE, THE PROCESS of treating diseases with stem cells made with a patient’s DNA will work something like this: 1) take easily available cells (like skin cells) from a patient with, say, Parkinson’s Disease, 2) transform the skin cells into stem cells, and then 3) coax those stem cells to become dopamine-secreting cells, which you can transplant back into the patient. If you’re really ambitious, you can edit the DNA of those cells to repair the Parkinson’s-causing mutation before transplanting them back into the patient. A second approach is to 1) take isolated DNA from a patient, 2) transplant that DNA into a donated human egg cell, 3) induce that egg cell to become an embryo and extract the stem cells, then 4) use those stem cells to create specialized cells that get transplanted back into the patient.

We would probably need to tweak existing laws for something like that to become a reality. Fear of the sci-fi Clones could hamper some research. But most importantly, to get adult stem cells to do what embryonic stem cells do, we first have to understand at the very least precisely how embryonic stem cells work. Which involves … studying embryonic stem cells in great detail. Duh.

There are two schools of thought in US politics on how best to accomplish that. Some scholars think diverting a few blastocysts from the medical incinerator and cultivating them to study those complex process is the way to go. Another group is certain, for reasons that are unclear, that we can save those poor innocent blastocyst Americans and learn a lot more about regenerative medicine by throwing them away.

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