Wednesday, April 1, 2009

End to Embryonic Controversy?

An article released on March 27, 2009, suggesting that researches have found ways to create stem cells from non stem like cells, also called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). The released study has demonstrated how they have managed to change skin cells into iPS cells by adding growth genes. Once these new cells begin to reproduce these growth genes will disappear. This is great news for the stem cell researcher community because they have successfully created embryonic-cell look-alikes that do not have the cancer-causing genes found in the earlier experiments. Similarly to embryonic stem cells, iPS cells have the capability to turn into nearly any type of tissue. This is assuring hope that perhaps one day we can use this new technology to create organ replacements without the need for finding donor matches or treating the patients with anti immune drugs for the remainder of their lives because their new organ would essentially be their own. Even more importantly this new method in constructing a means to developed embryonic stem cell look-alikes will lack much of the controversy that surrounds similarly-capable human embryonic stem cells. The controversy lies mostly in the fact that to harvest embryonic stem cells, embryos must first be destroyed in order to extract the inner cell mass (ICM). The ICM cells comprise what we term embryonic stem cells once they have undergone some differentiation. They hold tremendous capability to become nearly any cell found in the human body. It does not come as a surprise to me that stem cell researcher George Daley of Children's Hospital in Boston called the new study "a beautiful and important contribution."
Since iPS does not require the "killing" of any embryos, but rather the personal somatic cell from the individual, is less likely to be as scrutinized. Hopefully, researches can now have the opportunity to do the research necessary to not only improve their methods but understand the full potential of these iPS cells.

I think it’s a great breakthrough! I am not sure if you all know this but the Wisconsin group was among the first two groups to successfully create human iPS cells. This was back in November 2007. Both groups made iPS cells from fibroblasts of various tissues. Fibroblasts are, roughly, skin cells that are NOT fully differentiated.
The Yamanaka's group from Japan at the time expressed 4 genes for transcription factors: Oct3/4, Sox 2, Klf4 and Myc. Myc however is a frequently found mutation found in many cancers.
The second group was Thomson's group from Wisconsin. They were able to express four genes, 3 TFs, and one processing factor: Oct 3/4, Sox 2, Nanog, Lin 28.
At the time these iPS cells had passed all the tests for human embryonic stem cells meaning they had:
appropriate cell surface marker expression
express appropriate genes (a good example is telomerase, which is was essentially makes a cell immortal so to speak)
can differentiate in vitro into neural and cardiac cells
form terratomas if implanted (into mice) if they do not undergo some differentiation.

However at the time much more work needed to be done. While all four genes by both groups were transduced into human cells by retroviruses these retroviruses were known to cause cancers and neural diseases which clearly made the methods clinically unsuitable.
The major contributor to these as they thought at the time was partially a result from Myc gene because it posed a high cancer risk. Finally the biggest and most prevalent concern was that these were permanent genetic changes to cells. Perhaps if they could make equivalent changes by controlling the gene expression rather than altering the genes in the cell this could illuminate this concern.

It seems they are working in the right direction, and by no means do I think that they are anywhere close to being done. There still needs to be more research to fully understand these complex mechanisms. My hope is that since this method is significantly less controversial, scientists can start getting to work now!

You can learn more about this and other related articles at:

Article by Dan Vergano

Keep a look out, the study will be published in the coming months in the Journal Science.

I also wanted to share these two videos with you...

Inside Story did a special on the controversies of embryonic stem cells and the recent attempt by President Obama to end the ban of stem cell research

This first video does a good job of giving a brief overview of what Embryonic Stem Cells really are as well as some of the controversies that surround them. They also briefly describe how Obama's attemp to pass new policies may be changing the research mainstream.

This second video discusses alternatives to embryonic stem cells such as the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells I mentioned above. They also provide some of the setbacks that may come with these new alternatives.

The following video is an interview I did with an MSU student who played the roles of both someone who is for embryonic stem cell and against it.

Tell me what you think by filling out this short (10 question) survey that I created.

Click Here to take my survey!



  1. I am very opposed to embryonic stem cell research. This is the first time I have heard about IPS. Sounds very interesting and something I may not be disagree with.

  2. Now I know what this IPS stuff is about, that sounds like a really big breakthrough and should end a lot of the controversy over stem cells if everything works out. Thanks for the video links, it proved to be helpful as well, great job on the two posts I have read so far!!

  3. With this new form of discovery and research using iPS cells, I sort of think that it might not have been possible if the ban by George W. Bush in 2001 had not been established since people would not have been trying to find an alternative method. But then again, it probably limited the time spent into trying to gain knowledge of using embryonic stem cells. I’m appreciative of the fact that by having a ban on federally funding embryonic stem cell research allowed scientists to try and develop new alternatives and actually provoked other possibilities and things to be investigated with stem cells in general, and in general it does change the pathway of research that is conducted mainstream. Overall I think iPS cells are a great alternative, but I also agree with you too that there’s a long way to go until it may hold up to turning into something positive.
    I'm still iffy on the chances of cancer cells that might come from these, but that goes for the other stem cells too.

  4. I am extremely opposed to embryonic stem cell research but to have the ability to manipulate cells without the use of an unborn fetus is a promising discovery. I think that more research and emphasis should be put on these new iPS cell findings. Hopefully the practice of embryonic stem cell research will become unnecessary and obsolete

  5. The fight over embryonic stems cells is completely polarized, but I don't see how there can be controversy over this research. No fetus is terminated and only a few genes are manipulated. This research is still relatively new, so I believe that we should continue to utilize the embryonic stem cell lines in existence until this new therapy is prepared to replace work embryonic cells.

  6. You know, I'm not against embryonic stem cell research but I agree that this is a great breakthrough since it might get the pro-lifers to stop whining.