Dissecting life: Dawn of a new medical age?

image of stem cell Human embryo revealing the inner cell mass. Photo: Wellcome Trust.

Today researchers in Atlanta, Georgia, announced they will begin the first known human trials of a therapy using embryonic stem cells. The goal of the treatment is to use the cells to help rebuild damaged nerve cells and thereby restore lost sensation and mobility in patients with spinal cord injuries.

The decision is not without controversy. Pro life and religious groups are against the use of embryonic stem cells because they are obtained through the destruction of a human embryo. The advantages of using embryonic cells is they are essentially a blank slate of life and have the ability to develop into virtually any cell type. They are also responsible for many healing functions within the body.

Researchers aligned with the religious right believe the same types of treatments can be achieved through the use of somatic (adult) stem cells. In fact there has been some success in coaxing somatic cells into stem-like cells. In one trial, skin cells from a mouse were transformed into nerve cells.

What I find interesting about this announcement is the lack of background in many of the stories I have read. Geron Corp., A biopharmaceutical company, has been pursuing this human trial for years. The corporation came under fire in 2005 when its peers questioned the speed in which Geron was hoping to bring the treatment to trial. The concern at the time was past experience has shown jumping from rodent testing to humans would, as one scientist was quoted saying, fail miserably. Unfortunately, the latest media reports don’t elaborate on the types of test Geron has done and if its early trials expanded beyond mice. Geron’s own information on its past testing only cites mice and rats as test subjects.

Frankly, I don’t have a lot of ethical concerns when it comes to stem cell research. Research for the medical applications of stem cell therapy has been promising. In the future because of this ground-breaking technology we might see cures to multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Ultimately, the lame might walk, the blind see and the deaf hear.

My only concern is when messing around with genetics it’s probably a good idea to take it slow, but slow doesn’t seem to be in Geron’s vocabulary. At the beginning of 2009 Geron won approval to begin human testing with this therapy. However, the clinical trials were delayed because in a later test group a higher frequency of cysts developed in animal subjects. All previous tests had shown “a very low frequency of injected animals developed microscopic cysts in the regenerating injury site,” according a 2009 Geron press release. Geron went on to say the cysts were not uncommon nor unusual adding, “Cysts of much larger size appear in the spinal cord scar tissue of up to 50% of patients with spinal cord injury.”

I believe if stem cell research can help us cure some of our most debilitating diseases then I am all for it. However, we need to ensure it is safe before we start using people as guinea pigs. Sorry, guinea pigs, I am all for shooting you up. Is the Geron product safe? Only time will tell.

 

 

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