Monday, April 13, 2009

Survey Results

Hi bloggers,

Here are the results from the survey I posted several weeks ago. Click on the link to view the breakdown of the multiple choice responses.

Click here for survey results.

The following are several of the answers to the questions that required a personal comments:

Question: Please describe, to the best of your ability, what you think embryonic stem cell research is and how it is done.

Several Responses:

I think there are two main ways to apply stem cell research, regenerative medicine and also in the study of differentiation for use in examining pathways and gene therapies. Embryonic stem cell research is conducted by removing the inner cell mass from a blastula and culturing them.

Embryonic stem research is a done in a laboratory in some hospital, it is a method to assist in pregnancy and/or find remedies to genetic diseases.

Stem cells are taken from unwanted embryos (excess from IVF) that have been killed. Research is being performed on stem cells to find cures for diseases such as Parkinson's, where being able to regenerate new cells from the stem cells is needed. Embryonic stem cells can be triggered to differentiate into any type of cell needed, so embryonic stem cell research has the possibility of curing many, many diseases.

Embryonic stem cell research is when research is conduct with stem cells from embryonic cells which would be discard if it was not used for research. I am not quite sure how it is done, but the embryonic stem cells are used to group strands of other stem cells which could be used to replicate into any cell we would want it to become. For example a stem cell could be used to create nerve cells.

with embryonic research we can take the placenta and perform genetic experiments on it with the DNA. There are human cells present which allow us to manipulate the information present along with using the cells for research that could not be conducted productively on a false cell.

An either aborted or miscarried zygote or fetus has its stem cells extracted in order to use those stem cells to do medical research and perhaps help cure diseases and cancer.

Question: To the best of your ability, please describe what you think induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are and how they are made. If you don't know please write "I don't know"

Several Responses:

Induced pluripotent stem cells come from differentiated cells which genes for stemness had been added via retroviruses and are induced to de-differentiate into stem cells.

I believe they are either adult stem cells that can be induced to become pluripotent, or they are cells that are somehow synthesized and induced to become pluripotent. This would allow them an ability similar to embryonic stem cells to differentiate into any type of cell needed.

Use of adult stem cells in a way that mimics the possible capabilities of embryonic stem cells.

20/33 Said they did not know

Question: For those that answer stated that they are opposed to iPS cells or are somewhat opposed to iPS cells Please describe some of your reasoning in the space below.

I didn't answer as either of those choices. I put does not apply because I don't really know enough about them!

I don't really know much about it but if it could help someone in a positive way im for it

Much of the responses included responses such as "I don't know enough about them", etc.

Thanks to everyone who participated. If you still have not completed the survey but would like to do so, you can find it here: Click Here to take survey

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Two Different Potentials
6-8 cells stage embryos

Once the embryos reach this stage of division, a test called Pre Implantation Genetic Diagnosis can be done to determine if the embryos have any abnormalities by examining the chromosomes. The normal embryos are determined and then implanted back into the uterus. The sex of the embryos can also be determined and implanted according to the patients wish. Since the sex of the embryos can be determined, it makes me think that the embryo is a life right at the point of conception, but that it is just so minuscule to see, whereas when you see an image of a fetus growing you can easily see the shape of the baby.

However, through IVF clinics, the way they store the embryos and have them frozen and shipped makes me feel like storage places treat them as just something out of the ordinary, or just cell dividing in a petri dish. So I would think that if they are in IVF clinics and are treated as packaged material, then one who is for IVF treatment should be ok to discard their embryo and use it for research where it would have to be destroyed to remove the stem cells. I personally think the word “destroyed” makes it seem far worse then it is. I think maybe it should be said it is put to use and stem cells are extracted to use it for a different potentiality.

Curious FYI :How they freeze an embryo

The reason I show you this is because it makes me think that if a human embryo can be frozen and stored, then it makes it sort of inhumane if one was to think of it as a human life. The freezing and storing I think, would not constitute for the right manner of taking care of an embryo, even though they still have the potential of turning into a human if implanted in the womb. Thus, I think that an embryo is a group of cells that just like how the stem cells have the potential to turn into any different cell, it has different uses and potentials, like turning into a baby under the right circumstances, or potential for gaining information through research.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Social Implications with the Increasing Innovation in Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

There is a tremendous amount of capability in the vast range of work currently being done with respect to embryonic stem cell research. Some of these breakthroughs include the recent successes reports in iPS cells by a group in Wisconsin to the latest cow-human hybrids created by the UK from generating stem cells from e-nucleated cow embryos and inserting DNA from human somatic cells. I am pleased and excited with the current work being conducted and I support its scientific progress. However, I think it’s essential to discuss the possible social implications that may result from these innovations. In the book “Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors”, Susan Sontag reveals the matrix of metaphorical significance linking cancer and tuberculosis with the conditions of modern life. She describes how the uses of metaphors in society have shaped our notions of the disease and illness itself. This tragic misrepresentation of disease as described by metaphors has, according to Sontag; led us to hold our current stereotypical views on disease and illness. More importantly, it has shaped our views of people that may be affected by the disease. Any disease that is treated as a mystery and feared enough will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious. Thus, a surprisingly large number of cancer patients find themselves being shunned by relatives and friends. They become objects of practices of ‘decontamination’ by members of their household, as if cancer, like tuberculosis (TB), were an infectious disease. According to Sontag, as long as a particular disease is treated as a source of evil that has deep implications in all life aspects and not just as a medical condition, most people will indeed be demoralized by learning what disease they have. To fully understand the social factors at play, its important to note that the progression of the disease and the treatment itself play a significant role in not only the patient’s self-perception but also how they are perceived in the eyes of their society. The solution is to correct the conceptions we hold now with respect to disease and illness and begin to de mystify them.

Social scientists have shown that in all societies, there is a correspondence between the biological and the social order. Everywhere, and throughout all periods, it is the individual who is sick, but they are sick in the eyes of their society in relation to, and in keeping with the manners fixed by it. The language surrounding the disease and the sick individual thus takes shape within the language expressing the relations between the individual and society. Over the last twenty years, we have seen an extraordinary growth of the medical establishment and an equally remarkable crisis of confidence with respect to it. These developments have had an impact on the sick, their self-image, and their behavior. The transformation of the very nature of the diseases over time, the development of medicine and the sudden linking of illness and work in the legal framework brought about by industrialization are all examples of the constant restructuring of illness and the sick, showing us that each society has its own way of letting the sick exist, defining them, and taking charge of them.

Embryonic stem cell development exhibits a tremendous amount of promise with respect to treating many illnesses and diseases, some of which offer no cures currently. However, I can also see how these innovations may bring negative implications on our society, particularly individuals who are currently inflicted by a certain disease. As someone already pointed out, there have been recent developments which have demonstrated how stem cells have contributed to the cure of deafness. However, how might this new development influence others who do not wish to seek treatment and may not consider their condition to be a disability? Furthermore, how will this affect individuals with these condition who desire the treatment but simply do not possess the means to obtain the procedure? How might this change the way our society views the diseased and people with disabilities and the conditions associated with individuals who exhibit them. Will people inflicted become more readily discriminated against and how might it influence the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 if embryonic stem cell provides treatment for existing diseases. Bush’s approval of funding for limited embryonic stem-cell research with his concurrent praise of the American’s with Disabilities Act took many people by surprise. His consent to allow federal funding to take action towards curing and possibly even eliminating disabilities from society seems to many as completely countering the progress the ADA which has taken over eleven years to establish. With some even claiming this to be eugenics, they fear this may be jeopardizing the livelihood of the advancement and progressive reform that has been made from laws protecting those with disabilities.

In addition, it's important to consider how these innovations may also influence the non diseased or disabled. Nearly 46 million Americans, or roughly 18% of the population under the age of 65 were without health insurance between they years of 2007 and 2008 and that number is predicted to increase. Is it possible that this promising innovation may actually make it more difficult for average citizens to obtain health coverage?

An interesting quote I stumbled upon:

When scientists talk about curing the usual swathe of conditions, including spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, they often take a warped view of living life with a disability. Not only may they describe such conditions as an intolerable burden for society but some are as arrogant as to foreshadow that "we may be able to produce a whole generation of people who have a pretty good quality of life right up until they die (Professor Rathen, "Laws hamper stem cell research", The Australian, September 2, 2005)

Some Background Info

Stem cells have the potential to develop into many other types of cells. Some of them are found in tissues and serve as their internal repair system. Stem cells have the capability to divide without limit. All stem cells are characterised by two characteristics: unspecialized cells capable of renewal and ability to become induced to tissue- or organ-specific cells. Scientists have also been able to show that some stem cells from one tissue have the ability to create cells from another tissue, known as plasticity. However, it is still under great debate and has only been shown in vitro.

With regards to their unspecialized characteristic, stem cells have the ability to proliferate many times unlike other cells. These cells do not contain any tissue-specific structures that force it to have specialized functions; however, they do have the ability to produce specialized cells, a process called differentiation.

There are three types of stem cells which include embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells are derived from four to five day old embryos, or fertilized eggs. This structure is also known as a blastocyst and can be divided into the trophoblast, blastocoel, and inner cell mass. The inner cell mass is where the stem cells are located. To access the stem cells, the scientist would need to destroy the embryo and transfer the inner cell mass into a culture medium. Embryonic stem cells have the ability to differentiate into any type of cell in the body, thus they are pluripotent cells. Additionally, they are very easily grown in culture.

An adult stem cell is an undifferentiated cell that is found in a specific tissue among other differentiated cells. These stem cells can create specialized cells types of the tissue in which they reside. There is a very small number of adult stem cells that are located in the stem cell niche where they remain quiescent for years until they are needed to divide. "These cells have a limited capacity for proliferation, thus making it difficult to generate large quantities of these cells in the laboratory." Adult stem cells are primary used for repair and maintenance mechanisms of the cell. Currently, adult stem cells have been reported in the brain, bone marrow, peripheral blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscle, skin, intestine, teeth, heart, gut, liver, ovarian epithelium, and testes. Adult stem cells are limited to the cell types of their tissue of origin. Since there are very few of them in the stem cell niche, they are relatively rare, harder to isolate and they have a limited ability to proliferate which greatly reduces the ability to effectively produce a large number of cells needed for stem cell replacement therapies.

Finally, induced pluripotent cells (iPS) are "adult cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to an embryonic stem cell-like state by being forced to express genes and factors important for maintaining the defining properties of embryonic stem cells." The cells clinical ability compared to embryonic stem cells is currently unknown and needs more research. With research done from mouse iPS cells, they have shown characteristics of pluripotent stem cells such as their ability to express stem cell markers, form tumors from all three germ layers, and contribute to make different tissues.

Stem cells have many different potential uses. They gave scientists more information about the complexity of development among humans. Scientists now know that the key to identifying how undifferentiated stem cells become differentiated is through the process of turning genes on and off. Additionally, most of the serious medical concerns today such as cancer and birth defects are related to cell division and differentiation. Stem cells would help scientists have a better grasp as to what is happening and what type of treatment may be useful with the help of stem cells. Stem cells are also important to test new drugs. They would allow scientists to test the drugs on the cells rather then a person. Finally, human stem cells could be used for cell-based therapies such as transplants. Now days, there are a limited number of available organs for the numerous people that need organ transplants. Stem cells would allow scientists to grow cells to repair the damaged organs. Since the scientists would be using the individuals own stem cells, then the risk of rejection is eliminated since it is their own cells in the first place.

Here is a basic diagram to show the differences of how embryonic and adult stem cells are created. It also shows the other forms of stem cells but unfortunately, iPS cells are not included.

This website gives a nice interactive introduction to the different types of stem cells.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Embryonic Stem Cells May Cure Deafness

Embryonic Stem Cell Research is a very contentious topic especially since President Barack Obama recently signed an executive order that lifted a ban limiting federal funding. The ban that President Obama lifted had been in place since it was executed by former President George W. Bush in 2001. Many scientists and patients are very excited because stem cells can supposedly cure numerous ailments and afflictions. Many people are in favor of embryonic stem cell research because scientists have found results that could eventually lead to cure current afflictions with no known cure.

One of the afflictions that scientists recently found a link to stem cells is deafness. Deafness usually involves the loss of sensory receptors, labeled as hair cells because of their clumps of hair like protrusions and their related neurons. But as of March 29, 2009, Scientists from Sheffield University in the United Kingdom found stem cells that could be used to reverse this hearing loss. They were able to take stem cells from fetuses and change them to behave like early versions of the sensory hair cells and neurons in the human inner ear. These cells would assist scientists in advancing the technologies needed to transport them into damaged tissues, such as the cochlea, in order to restore the different cell types. This discovery could eventually help those people who have lost these sensory hair cells through noise damage or even some people who were born with hearing problems. So in all, scientists would be developing a treatment for deafness.

According to Dr. Rivolta, “these stem cells were taken from the developing cochleas of discarded human fetuses aged 9 to 11 weeks.” Dr. Rivolta’s team grew the cells in the laboratory and “more than half of them displayed the electrical and physical features of sensory hair cells which turn sound waves into nerve impulses. Other cells showed the properties of auditory neurons which transmit hearing messages to the brain.”

Scientists were exhilarated by being able to make neuron and hair cells because these cells were originally only created in the womb making it impossible to treat people who have lost these cells. This meant that curing deafness was unattainable.

As indicated by the BBC news article, “Currently, hair cell damage is irreversible and causes hearing problems in some 10% of people worldwide.” But embryonic stem cells can change this because they have the capability of becoming any human cell.

According to Dr. Ralph Holme, director of biomedical research at the Royal National Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People said, “Stem cell therapy for hearing loss is still some years away but this research is incredibly promising and opens up possibilities by bringing us closer to restoring hearing in the future.” The exciting news about treatment for hearing loss is still at least ten years away. Along with Dr. Rivolta, the next step in the deafness treatment research is to look at how these cells respond when implanted into animal models. In the end, everyone hopes they may propose a path to restoring hearing for patients. Even though scientists still have many years of researching treatments for hearing loss, it is very exciting that they have come this far in treating hearing loss that was thought to be irreversible.

Sources Used:

Human-to-Animal Embryonic Chimeras

Embryonic stem cell research has been debated since its creation, the controversial issue heated by the underlying topic regarding the beginning of life.  The debate remains unresolved and is becoming increasingly complex, however, as new technologies are presented.  Most recently in the United Kingdom, legislation has been passed to allow a new form of technology for deriving embryonic stem cells.  With the legislation, stem cells can be acquired by fusing the e-nucleated eggs of cows with the somatic nuclei of humans.  These human-to-animal embryonic chimeras often referred to as human-cow hybrids, have a genetic composition that is approximately 99% human and 1% bovine.  The techniques, developed to evade a shortage of human eggs, are promising to researchers hoping to make advances in regenerative medicine, and therefore, harness the potential to lessen the suffering of millions around the world.  Given this context, I will be arguing that there is currently, no concrete argument for limitations on embryonic stem cell research via human-to-animal embryonic chimeras, and in the following, hope to shine a light onto the common misconceptions instilled in many by societal constructs and norms.

When considering human-to-animal embryonic chimeras, it is important to note that the debate no longer revolves around what people believe to be the beginning of life, but instead on the morality of combining genetic material of humans with that of other animals.  Interspecies chimeras are not a new practice, however.  Animal-to-animal embryonic chimeras are regularly created within the laboratory setting, so the issue at hand is not that of simply crossing genetic material between different species, but specifically crossing human genetic material with another species.  Those who oppose this new technology do so on the grounds of repugnance and fear, neither of which hold any valid weight in ethical debate.

The commonly held Western view, known as the Great Chain of Being, establishes a hierarchy at which God is at the top, followed by angels, human beings, animals, and lastly plants.  While this view is declining in popularity with time, it is still deeply engrained within our culture, and clearly sets humans apart from all other organisms.  Along these same lines, human beings are often given a privileged place based on our higher cognitive capabilities, such as language and reason.  But are such abilities truly grounds to make this distinction?  To make such an argument, one would have to establish guidelines for species identification.  Many assume species boundaries to be determined by fixed characterizations.  Evolution being a fluid process, however, debunks this misconception. (Robert, 2003) With evolution discrediting the notion of fixed species boundaries, one cannot argue against interspecies hybrids based on categorizations that, in reality, don’t exist.

Another common objection is based upon the moral confusion introduced by creating a being with no defined moral status.  Just previously we established that, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as fixed species boundaries.  Regardless of this fact, however, we still rely on this notion in a moral context when making decisions on how to treat creatures that differ from us, whether from what we eat to what we experimentally manipulate. It is a generally held worldview that human beings have a heightened moral status over other animals.  When creating a being that mixes two organisms of different moral statuses, however, we are faced with defining how human a being has to be to accredit it with full moral status.  Individuals who oppose human-to-animal embryonic chimeras, based on this uncertainty, do so out of fear because such a being would force us to revisit our current behaviors towards certain human and nonhuman animals.  This is not the first time we have been faced with having to determine the moral status of a being, however.  Just as we resolved the moral status of beings that are undeniably human (women, African Americans, and the like), we can rest assure that the same will be resolved for any beings we create. (Robert, 2003)

There are a multitude of other objections that appear to be variations of the ones discussed above.  Accepting that species boundaries are social constructs rather than scientific truths, however, refutes the majority of these objections.  By recognizing evolution as a fluid process in which species are ever changing, we have no reason to limit technology that harnesses potential to lessen the pain and suffering of all beings around the world.

Works Cited:

Robert, Jason Scott. (2003). Crossing Species Boundaries. The American Journal of Bioethics, Volume 3, Number 3, Summer 2003, pp. 1-13. Retrieved on March 31st, 2009 from bioethics/v003/3.3robert.pdf

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Patients glad to have final say on embryos’ fates
Lifting of embryonic stem cell funding ban gives families more options

With the new lift off the ban from George W. Bush, the new stem cell policy by President Barack Obama allows for patients of IVF treatment to decide what they wish to do with the remaining of their embryos, whether they wish to save or discard them, or give them to research.

Amy Birney, a patient from IVF had resulted in just donating her remaining embryos to her doctor where he froze the embryos and put them in storage, since at the time under the previous policy, she could not donate her embryos for stem cell research.

A couple said they had five options. "Well, one, we could have used them to have a third child, the potential of a third child. We could have destroyed them, not used them and … have them thawed and put away. We could have donated them to another couple who's having reproductive difficulties and wants to have a baby. We could continue to do nothing. Or we could donate them to medical research."

Julie Robichaux, 38, and just one of the thousands of former infertility patients said, “(As an IVF patient) you know what your embryo can become. You know the actual, not just the potential.” She argues that the patients themselves have the final say about whether to donate their embryos to another family, to research, or to discard them, and that IVF patients realize the struggle of what to do with the remaining embryos. She also says "No one comes to IVF without a great soul searching and examination of our own morals. So for the government to take the choice away from us is extremely upsetting," she said.
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What should people do with their unused embryos?
There are about 300,000 frozen embryos that have been stored in the United States in 2003. The estimate now has risen to approximately around to 500,000, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

If unused embryos are not given to research, they are usually treated as biological waste and disposed of through incineration. Different IVF clinics have different options for the disposal of their embryos. IVF clinics usually need to have consent from the couple to dispose of it. Out of 175 IVF clinics surveyed in, the majority allowed couples to attend the disposal, while few even offered it to the patients.

This new overturn of the research policy gives the study for embryonic stem cells to continue and be federally funded. This gives the research community the supplies to now potentially catch up to the successful trials of using adult stem cells.

This article points out the fact that the patients are the ones that have a say in what happens to the remaining of their embryos. he way that patients can choose what to do with their remaining embryos that are not implanted in a woman’s womb is what I believe justifies the “destruction” of a human embryo after it has been created in an IVF clinic, and has been donated to research.

I think these two articles are important, since it in a way seems to put the moral dilemma to an ease over the destruction vs. the discarding of their embryos. It shows both sides, that sometimes the patients who donated want to take the embryos home and treat them as if they were human, but also gives others the choice of giving them to research that may benefit from such research instead of just freezing the embryos and letting them sit like they have for the past 8 years. I think that by having allowed the use of these “extra” embryos in the passed years would have speeded up the research.

I’m glad that there is finally a potential in the research of using embryonic stem cells and I think it will encourage researchers to show the benefits after certian trial and errors. The only thing that worries me is that the move from the thought of destroying embryos in the first place for research will now move to the concerns with experiencing the potential benefits by treating and testing the results on real humans in which puts the harm on real living people. But I understand that the only way to know if the stem cells work is through such trials.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Prime without the Rib

The In vitro Meat process

In Vitro Meat

The PETA organization (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has  announced that they are willing to offer a $1 Million dollar reward for the first scientist or group that can produce in vitro meat. The term in vitro generally refers to a scientific technique/procedure that takes place in a controlled environment outside of a living organism. Specifically, in vitro meat refers to actual animal meat, that has never been part of a living animal. Instead, stem cells are taken and grown in culture to become viable meat comparable to that of the real thing, real animal meat. As obviously this type of procedure would spare the lives of countless animals on a daily basis that are raised and slaughtered for feeding purposes, PETA sees great potential and promise with in vitro meat. 
The idea and first tests of in vitro meat were originated by NASA in attempt to find better methods of food production for astronauts for long trips into space. In regards to purity and health of in vitro meat, the issue can be looked from a number of different view points. With meat that can be genetically engineered, in vitro meat provides a meat that is free from growth hormones, and chemicals used in common agriculture practice. It is thought to be "cleaner" and less prone to disease than with real meat. Omega-6 fatty acids are common in real meat, however, in in vitro meat, the omega-6 fatty acids could be replaced with omega-3 fatty acids. This provides a much healthier alternative. To contrast this, it is still meat that is genetically engineered, and extremely new to scientific practice, thereby not yet proven as a replicated scientific procedure as of yet. It is common thought that when this procedure for making in vitro meat is finally reliable, it will become a much cheaper economical way of producing meat as it can all be done in lab, and money is not needed to allocate for the raising and feeding of animals for food production.
The embryonic stem cells used to start this process will be specialized cells from animal tissue, developed and grown in a growth mediums enriched with nutrients with use of a bioreactor (as shown by the picture above). 
In vitro meat will not taste, smell, look-like, or have the appearance of real meat, however, with as much work that is being done to make in vitro meat, the same amount of effort is being made to make the in vitro meat more similar, and one day hopefully unrecognizable to that of real meat. 
Statistically, with the world population growing rapidly, an increase in the need of meat is undoubtedly great. And with in vitro meat, this problem could theoretically be solved with a single cell. 
With promising prospects such as those just mentioned, a possible cure to the world's hunger problems at hand, and a cool $1 million dollars promised from PETA, it can be predicted that in vitro meat will soon be a reality in the very near future.

Catholics on Stem Cell Research

Since embryonic stem cell research arrived on the scientific scene as a viable option, the Catholic Church has held a very skeptical stance. Pope John Paul II said it was “related to abortion, euthanasia and other attacks on innocent life.” Pope Benedict XVI has upheld this view vigorously.

But while the Catholic Church hasn’t changed its own views, many of its constituents have. A recent poll from the Gallup Organization did not find any difference between Catholics and non-Catholics as far as their views on embryonic stem cell research or abortion. While views on other issues such as gambling differed by up to 13%, abortion and stem cell research had the lowest difference of only 1%, well within the margin of error.

Also included in the Gallup survey, were questions about how frequently Catholic subjects attend church. A strong trend was drawn between church attendance and adherence to the Catholic Church’s stances.

So what does this mean for the Catholic Church? One possibility is that they are slightly out of touch with their base. Initially, the Church’s stance was that the destruction of an embryo is the destruction of innocent human life, which was immoral and not permissible. Now that the idea that stem cells are harvested from discarded embryos is commonly understood, the main argument has been one warning of a slippery slope.

Though it would be hard to find a Catholic or non-Catholic that wouldn’t agree we must watch out for a slippery slope that may lead to immoral practices, most Americans no longer share the view of the Church. As evidenced by the Gallup poll, a majority of both Catholics and non-Catholics believe that the potential for benefit outweighs the risk of harm that could result from this research.

Stem Cell Trial to Test Promise of Stem Cell Research

The stem-cell debate has long been plagued with limited research funds and pro-life controversies. Ethicists, politicians, and philosophers have essentially gone in circles debating whether or not embryos are people, whether or not they deserve special rights, and whether or not we as humans have the right to intervene with embryos and the medical possibilities they pose. From the beginning, embryonic stem-cell research was something with the possibility, rather than the promise, to treat people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and spinal cord injuries. However, that could all change. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently set the stage to allow the first clinical trial involving human embryonic stem cells for the treatment of patients with spinal cord injuries.

Geron, a Californian-based biotechnology company plans to inject up to ten patients with small amounts of embryonic stem cells. The cells will have been produced in the lab and treated to become oligodendocytes, which are cells that stimulate nerve cell growth. Although the trial has not yet begun, researchers and doctors are full of optimism and hope.

"For us, it marks the dawn of a new era in medical therapeutics. This approach is one that reaches beyond pills and scalpels to achieve a new level of healing," Geron Chief Executive Dr. Thomas Okarma said (

Although I can sympathize with the pro-life side to the story, I cannot help but think that using embryonic stem cells for spinal cord injuries (as well as other uses) brings more good to the stage than it does harm. A close family friend of mine was injured in a car accident over a year ago, leaving him quadriplegic. I conducted a short phone interview with him on the matter of stem cell research with spinal cord injuries. I asked him whether or not he thought that destroying human embryos for research was ethical, and whether or not he would agree to participate in a study such as the one recently approved. He replied “Even though you’ve seen a good part of my recovery, no one can fully understand what it is like to not be able to move your arms and legs until you’re sitting in this wheelchair. Whether or not it is ethical to use embryos; I don’t honestly know. I do know that this embryonic stem cell research gives us hope and I do believe it is unethical to take away someone’s hope. The way I see it, there are plenty of things that go on in the medical world that tamper with human life or are controversial. Clearly some people don’t agree with using embryos for research, but most of these people have probably never been quadriplegic, nor is anyone forcing them to participate in this research. Me however, I’m in this chair, and I would jump at the opportunity to participate in a study like the Geron one you were telling me about.”

My interview with Mark made me realize that it is easy to forget with all of the debates and news going on with stem cell research, that behind all the controversy are people. Current estimates on the number of people in the United States living with spinal cord injuries are as high as 400,000, with an estimated 7800 new cases each year. Most of the injuries happen to people between the ages of 16 and 30. This to me shows that there are a lot of lives at stake, with a lot of quality years of life left. Speaking in a utilitarian manner, wouldn’t we want to do anything we can to maximize the good for these people? Dr. Jack Kessler, a prominent stem cell researcher at Northwestern whose passion for stem cell research was ignited after his daughter was left quadriplegic after a skiing accident, commented on the issue. "This is all about trying to cure disease, trying to help people who are in pain and who are suffering to make them better. I can't think of a more moral or ethical thing to be doing. So i think really, we have the moral high ground."

Although we may be decades away from reversing all of these spinal cord injuries, the first step has been taken to get something done with stem cells clinically.

Search engine:

Original article:

Spinal cord statistics:

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!


Scientists Find Safer Way to Make Human Stem Cells

There was a new breakthrough that was reported on March 26, 2009 with details about a new way to make an embryonic stem cell from a skin cell without having to use viruses. The article state that they made induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) so that there was not any genetic material left being to pose risks. They are trying to find many different ways to make the skin cells behave like embryonic stem cells so that they can create new treatments without the ethical controversies. Previously, they were using a vector to carry genes into the cell and cause the cell to reprogram itself. Jame Thomson from the University of Wisconsin said that the new method involved using a plasmid, circle DNA, to carry the genes needed for reprogramming. Furthermore, he said that the plasmids disappear over time so that the harmful genes can not be placed into the cell's DNA through recombination; thus, less or even no tumor formation. Thomson believes that there will be many ways to produce iPS cells and they will start to look at which method produces the most consistent results. (The article can be found at: )

If this method becomes possible it will diminish most of the debate regarding the use of stem cells because they will not need to "kill" an embryo. However, there are some drawbacks to this method. According to Jerome Zack PhD., the length of time to transform the cells into iPS cells is a couple of months. Therefore, if a patient suffers a heart attack and needs a new heart immediately they they would not be able to grow a heart fast enough for him to survive using iPS cells. He stated that the cost of reprogramming cells is relatively high. Additionally, he mentioned the possibility of the cells to produce cancer; however, the video was released prior to this new method described above so that may or may not be te case with the new plasmid method. (The video can be found at: )

I believe that this method could decrease the debate dramatically; however, I think that embryonic stem cells will still need to be used in some cases. As Zack described, the advantage of embryonic stem cells over iPS cells is that they can be readily available and can be used immediately. Therefore, if a patient had a heart attack and needed a heart they could use a embryo that was ready to go and produce a heart for him. I think that if the scientists are able to produce the iPS cells without causing cancer then they should use that method to create the organs that are not needed immediately instead of the embryonic stem cells in order to help diminish the debate. However, if the unfortunate case arises and doctors need an organ immediately to save a patients life then I think that they should be able to use the embryonic stem cells to save his life. His life is very important and should not be lost because scientists were forbidden to make an organ for him.

Above is a diagram of how the induced pluripotent cells are created using the skin cells of a mouse. This method uses retroviruses to inject the specific genes in to the cell. These genes are known as the master regulators that keep the cells in the embryonic stem cell-like state. Next, the scientist used specific methods to differentiate the cells in to blood stream cells and they were injected in to the sickle-cell anemia mouse.