Stem Cell Technique Named Scientific Breakthrough of the Year

Daily News Article   —   Posted on December 19, 2008

Note:  This article is from the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph:

(by Matthew Moore, Telegraph.co.uk) – A technique that allows stem cells to be created without the need to destroy embryos has been named as the scientific breakthrough of the year.

The advance, which involves turning back the clock on adult tissue and “reprogramming” it with the properties of stem cells, could lead to new treatments for diseases including Parkinson’s and diabetes.

The process allows for a potentially limitless numbers of “induced pluripotent stem” (IPS) cells to be made to order from a sick patient’s cells, meaning they do not risk rejection from the immune system when transplanted.

The technique does not require stem calls to be harvested from embryos, making it more acceptable to religious groups.

Dr Robert Coontz of the journal Science, which placed cellular reprogramming top of its list of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of 2008, said it “opened a new field of biology almost overnight and holds out hope of life-saving medical advances”. Three teams working in Japan and the United States made major advances with the technique over the last 12 months.

“When Science’s writers and editors set out to pick this year’s biggest advances, we looked for research that answers major questions about how the universe works and that paves the way for future discoveries,” Dr Coontz said.

Runner-up was the first direct observation of planets in distant star systems, which required complex measures to blot out the light from their parent stars.

Other advances on the list included improved technology to map the genome – the human genetic code – and new calculations of the weight of the world.

Science’s Top 10 breakthroughs of 2008

1) Cellular reprogramming

2) Observation of planets around stars

3) Insights into “good” fat

4) Expanding the catalogue of cancer genes

5) Most detailed video of a developing embryo

6) Faster, cheaper genome sequencing

7) Watching proteins at work

8) Industrial-scale energy storage

9) High-temperature superconductors

10) Calculating the weight of the world

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Questions

1. What has been named the scientific breakthrough of 2008 by Science magazine?

2. What is the benefit of being able to make new cells from a sick patient’s cells?

3. What diseases could adult stem cells create cures for? (FYI – Read further under resources to learn what has been done.)

4. Read the background below, and look at the information under “Resources.” Did you know about the difference between using adult stem cells vs. embryonic stem cells for scientific research? What do you think about this scientific breakthrough of 2008?


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Background

Adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. (from njfpc.org/Articles/AdultStem.asp)
  • Adult stem cell research has been on-going for 20-30 years, is not under any government restriction, and does not require the destruction of human life. These stem cells have already been used to treat spinal cord injuries, Leukemia, and even Parkinson’s disease . Adult stem cells are derived from umbilical cords, placentas, amniotic fluid, various tissues and organ systems like skin and the liver, and even fat obtained from liposuction.
  • In contrast, embryonic stem cells are obtained by harvesting living embryos generally 5 to 7 days old, which are destroyed in the process. Most importantly, embryonic stem cells have never yet been successfully used to help cure disease. In fact, in animals they have caused tumors and other complications. Embryonic stem cells are also being touted by some as a possible treatment for repairing the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, but stem cell researchers confess that this is a distortion that is not being aggressively corrected by scientists.
  • A new poll, conducted by International Communications Research, reveals that once Americans understand the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells, Americans strongly prefer funding adult stem cell research that does not destroy human life, by a margin of 61% to 23%. So, what is driving the biotech industry and many government officials to press for government money to subsidize embryonic stem cell research? Free money, and research without ethical limitations.
  • Private industry has not been willing to put up any large sums of money on their own for embryonic stem cell research, because they are not sure it will yield the results they hope for. However, some drugmakers are getting into the field of research utilizing adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood and bone marrow . Investors are now taking notice that adult cells are actually working with human patients, and researchers are finding that these cells appear to be as flexible as the embryonic type.

Background on Adult Stem Cells vs. Embryonic Stem Cells: (from pbs.org, a Newshour Extra report on the Stem Cell Research Debate by Lisa Prososki)
Stem cells are universal cells that have the ability to develop into specialized types of tissues that can then be used throughout the body to treat diseases or injuries. Stem Cell Research is a topic embroiled in much controversy. Scientists are hopeful that one day stem cells will be used to grow new organs such as kidneys or spinal cords as well as different types of tissues such as nerves, muscles, and blood vessels. The controversy sparked by the use of stem cells and research in this area comes from the fact that…these cells are taken from embryos that are just days old. As a result of this, the embryo, which is a developing human life, is destroyed. Many people feel it is immoral and unethical to destroy embryos for the sake of science. To further the debate, while these cells are easily cultured, replicate quickly, and have a relatively long life, embryonic stem cells have not yet been successfully used to provide any kind of therapy for humans and pose risks such as tumor growth and rejection by the body.

On the other side of the issue is the use of adult stem cells for research. Adult stem cells are available from a variety of sources including blood from the umbilical cord, the placenta, bone marrow, and even human fat. ….they may have some limitations in the type of tissues they are able to form. For many years, adult stem cells have been used to provide a number of different therapies to people with a relatively high rate of success. Recent research has shown that adult stem cells taken from one area of the body are able to regenerate and form tissues of a different kind. In addition to the proven therapies and research, the use of adult stem cells from a patient’s own body decreases the risk of rejection because the cells are not seen as foreign invaders.

All in all, many scientists believe that the use of adult stem cells should be the primary focus of stem cell research based on past success, lower chances of patient rejection, and the idea that adult stem cell research does not spark the moral, ethical, and political debate seen so frequently when the use of embryonic stem cells is considered.

Resources

Watch a video and a podcast, and read additional information about the scientific breakthrough at sciencemag.org/btoy2008.

Read “Adult Stem Cell Success Stories 2008” at frc.org.