Cellular Reprogramming May Offer Stem-Cell Compromise

stemcellsPresident Obama’s recent reversal of Bush’s policy on embryonic stem cell research reignited the debate over the ethical limits of science. Proponents of embryonic stem cell research argue that the cells have the potential to cure disease, while opponents object to the destruction of human embryos. However, as the Wall Street Journal reports, an innovative new technique could potentially reproduce the benefits of embryonic stem cells without the attendant controversy. San Francisco start-up iZumi Bio is teaming up with Kyoto University to commercialize a technique that turns back the clock on mature cells. In cellular reprogramming, scientists insert genes into mature mouse and human cells, which resets the cells’ molecular clock and returns them to an embryonic-like state. Scientists working on the project hope the reprogrammed cells can be transplanted into patients suffering from neurogenerative diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease and Parkinson’s, which currently have few effective treatment options. Cellular reprogramming also opens up new options for drug testing. Instead of testing on animals, which may respond differently to medications than humans, researchers can try experimental drugs on reprogrammed cell lines from the patients themselves.

Before this can be done, scientists need to find a safe method to insert the genes into cells. Harmful viruses have previously been used to transport the genes, but these viruses can become integrated into the patients’ cell structure and lead to disease or side effects. Scientists are on the lookout for a benign virus or other transport method that won’t harm the patient. Even if such a method is found, it will still be a while before cellular reprogramming is commercialized.

Companies working on their own unusual methods of stem cell production include Cytori Therapeutics and Cellerix, which derive stem cells from fat tissue;  BioEden of Texas, whose stem cells come from deciduous baby teeth; and RhinoCyte, which is developing a spinal-cord injury treatment based on olfactory cells.

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