Friday, February 09, 2007

The Good Stem Cells

Stem cells are cells originating in some area of human biology that can be used to recreate tissues of the human body.  Their most obvious application would be for replacement organs, skin, muscle, bone matter, etc.  Basically, embryonic stem cells have been the ones that scientists with much media access have been promising are the only ones that can be made into all three different “germ layers” or subtypes of cells.  That is to say they can be used to create any type of cell structure in the human body.

There have been small blurbs and hiccups as of late regarding adult stem cells and their utility for creating human tissues.

      For a long while, adult stem cells were believed to be only capable of differentiation to a limited number of mature cells, depending on the type of adult stem cell with which you start. For example, a marrow cell could become any number of types of marrow or blood cells, but it couldn't become a muscle cell. That's a different germ layer.

      Yet it's been virtually a state secret that for over five years researchers, beginning with a team headed by physician Catherine Verfaillie of the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute, have been reporting numerous types of adult stem cells (she used those from marrow) that in the lab could form mature cells from three germ layers.

But never mind all that.  Adult stem cells can’t be multiplied outside of the body for very long, whereas embryonic stem cells may replicate in a lab for years.

And lets also forget the fact that embryonic stem cell research has produced no viable treatments as of yet, whereas adult stem cells have been producing treatments for about 40 or 50 years now.

But the big excitement is that there might be an even better option.

      Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, reported that stem cells in the amniotic fluid that fills the sac surrounding the fetus may be just as versatile as embryonic stem cells. At the same time they maintain all the advantages that have made adult stem cells such a success.

The advantage there is that taking stem cells from amniotic fluid is a pretty low risk procedure, and is done quite frequently anyway during amniocentesis when testing the fetus for problems.

I’m not holding my breath that this gets out with any gusto by the larger media outlets.
Even better,  I’ll bet you all didn’t know this:

      Scientifically, all embryonic stem cells tend to become cancerous; they require permanent, dangerous, immunosuppressive drugs because the body rejects them as foreign; and they are difficult to differentiate into the needed type of mature cells. Non-embryonic stem cells, however, do not become cancerous; they are far less likely to cause rejection (especially the youngest, including umbilical cord and amniotic/placenta); and they have been used therapeutically since the late 1950s (originally for leukemia) because they have the amazing ability to form the right type of mature cell merely upon being injected into a body that needs that type of cell.

      It is these biological differences that have held embryonic stem cell research back, not a lack of federal funds.

The only problem with this, of course, for the left, is that it would take the heat off of President Bush entirely.  So here’s a funny question.  If Bush had never opposed funding stem cell research based on embryonic stem cells, would the left had come to the conclusion that embryonic stem cells should be left behind in favor of other types on their own, as there would be no reason to champion the embryonic sort politically?  Should we blame Bush for the media cover up of these more viable methods?

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