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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Science & Life

Radical shift in stem cell research

L-R: iPS technique has opened up huge promise for drug discovery using adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research has faced ethical debate over the years

Ishika's daughter has heart disease, Synthia's husband Schizophrenia. Rifat's neighbor has Parkinson's, Martin's nephew is traumatized. Proper treatment of these life-threatening diseases is subject to extensive medical research. On top of the existing medications to alleviate the conditions, permanent solutions for them are called-for. Stem cell research had long been thought as a potential tool to provide a permanent solution to these diseases. However, medical-research insiders now know that embryonic stem (ES) cell technology is proving to be a dead end. The alternatives could be adult stem (AS) cells which are far more controllable than the ES cells, because although ES cells have the capacity to differentiate into many types of cells, they face the pitfall of developing uncontrolled cell division phenomenon leading to cancer and also ethical debate of killing human life taking conception as the start of a new life. In contrast to ES cells, which are regarded totiopotent, that is, capable of developing into any cell type found in adult organism, the types of stem cells found in adults are either unipotent, (stem cells capable of developing into a single specialized cell type), or pluripotent, stem cells capable of developing into a few closely related cell types. So, the question arose, would it be possible to find out an alternative source of totiopotent or at least totiopotent-like stem cells?

The breakthrough came from a Japanese biologist named Shinya Yamanaka, who disclosed a technique that would ultimately transform both stem cell biology and ethical debate. In March 2006, at a scientific meeting at Whistler, B.C., the Kyoto University scientist described a procedure of reprogramming the ordinary mammalian cells into stem cells. It was like the adult cells were taken back to an embryo-like or stem-like state without the requirement of developing and destroying an embryo. He named the cells “induced pluripotent stem cells' or iPS cells. Just four years before this exciting discovery, a group of scientists led by Thomas M. Jessel and Hynek Wichterle published a landmark paper in the Cell Journal, explaining the ingredients and procedure for creating motor neurons from ES cells. One researcher, Lee L. Rubin, who was the head of translational medicine at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute found something of great promise in this work.. Rubin got the idea to use stem cells to discover drugs rather than using for mere cell therapy which had already reached a dead end resulting in failures in these sorts of experiments over the years. Several projects were launched to take an adult cell, coax it back biochemically into an embryo-like state, allow it to replicate, and harvest stem cells from the colonies produced. The amazing outcome of using this iPS technique was that the cells in the diseased conditions including unique genetic mutations could be replicated in the cell culture. So, it can serve as the model diseased cells to search or discover potential therapeutic compounds that can either cure or alleviate the condition or enhance survival of the particular cell types. Experimenting with the technique on motor neuron disease, Rubin has identified almost two dozen small molecules that interact with one of the newly identified pathways in those cells and enhance the survival of motor neurons. This paradigm shift in stem cell research has created much excitement in the scientific community which spilled over into biotech: Many of the researchers of this story have become involved in a California-based biotechnology company iPierian, which is one of several start-ups, including Cellular Dynamics International and Fate Therapeutics, that are adapting iPS technology for drug discovery.

With all these thrilling advances in stem cell research, the scope for extensive stem cell research should be created removing the restriction on this. As President Obama of US said, it would hasten “a day when words like 'terminal' and 'incurable' are finally retired from our vocabulary.” Indeed, daughters, husbands, neighbors, and nephews- all loved individuals deserve compassion and the best of advanced medical research.

The writer is a Lecturer in Biotechnology at BRAC University

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