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November 20, 2007

News embargo lifted on stem cell paper

I see a banner on MSNBC, listed as breaking news: "Japanese, U.S. scientists report stem cell breakthrough," about a research paper demonstrating a method for creating a cell with appears to have the characteristics of a pluripotent stem cell from a somatic (skin) cell by the addition of four genes.

By taking a skin cell, and reprogramming it to become a pluripotent stem cell, this solves the problem of immune rejection by the donor if this cell is meant to be used for therapy, for example, to help regenerate cardiac tissue in the event of a heart attack. It's a simpler solution than somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the technique also known as therapeutic cloning, and was used to create Dolly, the cloned sheep.

The announcement of the lifted embargo:

The AAAS Office of Public Programs is lifting the embargo, effective immediately, on the article "Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Lines Derived from Human Somatic Cells," by Junying Yu and colleagues, because of an embargo break by the newspaper, The Age. The article will be published online at the Science Express website, at noon today, 20 November.

more to follow...

I just listened to the first 1/2 hour of a conference call with the lead author of this paper, Dr. Yu, and the corresponding author, Dr. Thompson. Both are researchers at the University of Wisconsin. Their statements were very brief since they wanted to get right to answering questions.

First, Dr. Thompson said that this paper is based on the research performed over the past ten years using embryonic stem cell lines, and that embryonic will need to be continued in the future to provide a gold standard against which this reprogrammed somatic cells may be compared.

But he did say that he thought that this marked "the beginning of the end" of generating new stem cell lines. He said that in his lab he has been using around 10 embryonic stem cell lines, but found the need to derive more to test a new medium and culturing technique. He thought that research with the hundreds of ES cell lines available throughout the world will continue, and that there will be a need to derive new cell lines as necessary.

He said in response to a question that his research was not driven by a wish to avoid the ethical controversy of using ES cells for research. He also denied that this new advance would result in "pulling the plug" on current ES cell research, as one reporter put it.

Thompson said that a patent would be sought for this procedure and that it would be assigned to his institution.

Dr. Yu described their use of fetal fibroblasts, then adult skin fibroblasts (from a 46-year old woman) in proving that their derived cell lines, now lasting more than 22 weeks, could form teratomas in mice, the proof that these cells can differentiate into all three basic tissue types, and are therefore pluripotent. It was later noted that these cells could not used for reproductive cloning if implanted in a uterus. These derived cells are more like the primitive ectoderm part of an embryo, said Thompson.

Thompson also forecast that research into therapies would likely follow the rhesus monkey model for experiments.

The spin in the popular media that this somehow avoids the ethical dilemma, for the time being at least, is not a good way to view this breakthrough. The definitions of a ES cell, or a pluripotent derived cell are only functional now. It's not clear what makes them what they are.

Of course, the big hope is for a therapy that might alleviate or cure a condition such as Alzheimer disease. But Thompson emphasized there is still much more needed to be known about the disease process itself. This might be possible through created a line cell mimicking the disease, but it's not known if or how this can be done. The basic point is that there will have to be more basic research before therapies will be found.



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