are stem cells?
Stem cells are specialized
cells that are genetically flexible and can, given the correctly
timed environmental cue, grow and develop into a different type
of cell. This process is known as differentiation in developmental
biology. Stem cells are found in all major organ systems and allow
the body to regenerate damaged tissue. These kind of stem cells
are known as adult stem cells. There are also the embryonic stem
cells, which are cells of the newly fertilized embryo. All life
begins with a single cell, the zygote, and this zygote will split
several times into smaller cells, all of which are identical to
each other. These cells are held together in the morula stage of
embryonic development and precedes gastrulation, the first event
in changing the characteristics of the many embryonic stem cells
into different cell lines. Each cell line is the beginning of a
later tissue and organ of the fetus and grown body. This process
of specialization is irreversible. However, some stem cells have
been tricked in the laboratory to behave like a zygote after receiving
the genetic material from a donor cell. This process is known as
cloning. Cloning allows either the creation of a genetically identical
offspring exactly as the genetic information of the donor cell dictates,
or the harvesting of specialized stem cells from embryonic stem
cells after a cloning event. The latter is often referred to as
therapeutic cloning. Biologically, each zygote like cell has the
potential to develop into a full grown individual, thus the controversy
over using these cells in medical research.
What is the advantage of
stem cells in treating diseases?
The role of stem cells in
embryonic and fetal development, wound healing and the daily regeneration
of skin and blood cells (thus our ability to shed skin and donate
blood, bone marrow or umbilical cord blood cells) highlights the
potential of stem cells to be used in any kind of wound healing
or repair of damaged tissue such as heart tissue and nervous tissue
to treat spinal cord injuries. A particularly interesting application
is the potential use of genetically modified stem cells to treat
The California Stem Cell
The recent establishment
of the California
Institute of Regenerative Medicine has the declared goal of overcoming the limitations set by President
Bush on publicly funded stem cell research, particularly the prohibition
of finding new stem cell lines suitable for medical research. This
limitation is restricted to embryonic stem cells, not adult stem
cells. The California project will make money available to California
researches interested in developing new stem cell lines from embryos.
The promises are indeed mind blowing and stem cell research rightly
deserves public support. It should be kept in mind that President
Bush's limitation only affects publicly funded research, but not
privately funded one. Thus, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies
are free to produce and use embryos for new disease treatments.
Stem cell research is a very new science. California will certainly
contribute many new insights into the reality and potential use
of stem cells for medical cures. The institute has a projected 10
year initial funding, a time line that seems reasonable long to
show results. So what can we expect?
Can stem cell research deliver
what its supporters promise?
The idea of using stem cells
to treat diseases is intriguingly simple. Yet, there are some caveats
that must be kept in mind to adjust ones expectations to reality.
Solutions will not come soon. And they will not be cheap. Just consider
that the California Institute will spend an estimated 6 billion
dollars over 10 years. For this amount of money, many more research
activities could be funded in addition to stem cell research. If
gene therapy is any guide, and the similarities are quite real,
there is a good chance that problems with cancer will considerably
affect the direction and expenses. For
now, the potential benefits are worth the costs and effort.
A demand for public oversight.
The steering committee
of the institute, the so called Independent Citizens Oversight Committee
is filled with representatives of a close-knit community of special
interest groups. The generously termed committee must itself submit
to public oversight, a situation that is not given at the moment.
One would think that the term 'independent citizen' means independence
from special interest. This is clearly not the case. The term 'independence'
actually refers to any outside interference in the committee's work,
particularly interference from the state legislature. Obviously,
the amount of tax payers money available to the 29 committee members,
money which they can steer towards there own research institutions
demand great public disclosure of any fund allocation. Transparency
is a must, because those who benefit are not those who pay the bill.
It is our believe that the 10 year term of the initial phase will
not be enough to lead to an actual treatment of a disease.
o m e
Copyright © 2000-2014
Lukas K. Buehler