Stem Cells Without Scruples? November 8, 2010Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
Tags: artificial blood, cloning, Lab-grown livers, stem cells
I think we bloggers often express several kinds of misgivings about the future on this blog, for different reasons, but here’s something that should make us rejoice: medical news has reached a stage that I could only dream about when I devoured science-fiction novels in the 1980s to prepare myself for the what-if scenarios of good ethical discussions (and also because I enjoyed a good space yarn):
First, the prospect of lab-grown livers is now becoming a reality:
The researchers created “working livers” the size of a walnut which functioned normally in laboratory conditions.
They believe that in around five years they will be able to upscale the process and transfer the procedure from laboratory to hospital.
The development could eventually solve the transplant shortage and also remove the need for powerful drugs to prevent the body rejecting the organ.
“We are excited about the possibilities this research represents, but must stress that we’re at an early stage and many technical hurdles must be overcome before it could benefit patients,” said the project director, Associate Professor Shay Soker from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina.
The technology opens up the prospect of growing other replacement organs, including kidneys or pancreases, for patients who are able to donate stem cells.
Artificially grown livers could be transplanted into patients or used to test the safety of experimental drugs.
This could be a milestone—not only because it may solve the transplant shortage, but also because it will remove the fear of, and hypothetical need for, reproductive cloning for the sake of organs, the scenario in the movie The Island, for you movie buffs. Which means that other, more realistic arguments for and against cloning can proceed.
And here is the other amazing piece of news, about creating artificial blood supplies, perhaps even in abundance:
Canadian scientists have turned human skin cells directly into blood cells, the first time one kind of mature human cell has been converted into another, they reported Sunday in the journal Nature.
The transformation was completed without first rewinding the skin cells into the flexible pluripotent stem cells that have most frequently been used to grow needed tissues. By skipping the pluripotent step, the researchers believe they have skirted the risk that the replacement cells might form dangerous tumors.
The team created blood progenitor cells — the mother cells that multiply to produce other blood cells — as well as mature blood cells, according to the report. Both types of cells could be useful in medical treatments, said study leader Mick Bhatia, a stem cell scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
“There is a great need for alternative sources of human blood,” Bhatia said. “Since this source would come from a patient’s own skin, there would be no concern of rejection of the transplanted cells.”
For some of us the idea of therapeutic cloning, using stem cell research to further life-saving medical intervention, is not a morally questionable issue at all, but there are many Americans for whom the thought of using stem cells is morally repugnant, and while I don’t share that view, I respect it. It isn’t clear what the source of the liver stem cells is, but the creation of blood progenitor cells bypasses the entire moral issue of using embryonic stem cells, because it comes from the adult person’s own skin. We can always be cynical about the ultimate cost, availability, and potential for political manipulation of such new methods, but for now let’s just rejoice that there’s good news to report!