Last week, I reported on this new breakthrough in stem cell research, in which scientists have discovered how to trigger the stem cell state in adult somatic cells, like skin cells, producing an induced stem cell, a pluripotent cell that can then be lead down the path to any of a multitude of useful tissue types. I tried to get across the message that this is not the end of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research: the work required ESCs to be developed, the technique being used is unsuitable for therapeutic stem cell work, and there’s a long, long road to follow before we actually have stem cell “cures” in hand. A review on LiveScience emphasized similar reservations. Seizing on this one result as an excuse to end research on ESCs would be a great mistake.
So let’s consider what it takes to turn a stem cell into a medically useful tool. One “simple” (we’ll quickly see that it is anything but) example is finding a cure for type 1 diabetes. We understand that problem very well: people with this disease have lost one specific cell type, the β cells of the pancreas, which manufacture insulin. That’s all we have to do: grow up a dish full of just one cell type, the β cells, and plant them back in the patient’s gut, and presto, no more diabetes (setting aside the chronic difficulty of removing whatever destroyed the patient’s original set of β cells, that is). Sounds easy. It’s not.