Spinal Confusion

...an attempt to clarify confusing and innacurate information in science articles

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Nanomachines, Gene Therapy, and... Stem Cells Cure Paralysis?!

New Indian Press has an article out that discusses how nanomachines, gene therapy, and stem cells will one day be combined to treat human diseases. It's a good article, but it includes an example of an umbilical cord stem cell transplant that supposedly helped a Korean woman, Hwang Mi-Soon, stand again (with braces for assistance) after 19 years of paralysis. Many Pro-Life groups jumped on this as proof that embryonic stem cells are not necessary to cure paralysis.

However, they all failed to read the full study and report accurately on it. Hwang Mi-Soon's spinal cord appeared to be compressed prior to the transplant, which is enough to induce paralysis by itself. A laminectomy was performed during the surgery, which may have decompressed her spinal cord.

The laminectomy makes it impossible to tell whether the stem cells were what helped her. The study, while positive, is far from conclusive. Until more surgeries are performed, using this study to say adult stem cells have cured paralysis is false.

UPI Gets It Wrong

While reading up on the new Korean stem cell center, I found a UPI Wire article over at ScienceDaily. The article was good, but it included this (blatantly incorrect) quote:

[quote]President George W. Bush's policy on stem-cell research bars federal funds from being used to generate new stem-cell lines, ...[/quote] Two things here.

First, the Dickey Amendment bars federal funding from being used to derive new embryonic stem-cell lines; not any policies implemented during the Bush administration.

Second, new stem-cell lines can be generated usig federal funds, so long as they do not run afoul of the Dickey Amendment. Fusion of somatic cells with embryonic stem cells and nuclear reprogramming are just two methods that scientists can use to generate new embryonic stem cell lines with federal funding. Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) into an enucleated embryonic stem cell is another.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

New Stem-Cell Methods Fall Short

Kristen Philipkoski from Wired News writes an interesting piece today on the newly proven methods (in animal models) to obtain embryonic stem cells. Many members of the "main-stream media" heralded these accomplishments as the deal-breaker in the ESC debate.

Guess what? They were wrong. Dead. Wrong.

New Stem-Cell Methods Fall Short
By Kristen Philipkoski

02:00 AM Oct. 19, 2005 PT

Headlines this week trumpeted a possible solution to the embryonic stem-cell research conundrum. Scientists obtained the cells without destroying embryos, which is the sticking point for most people who oppose the research.

But that point is still stuck, according to religious leaders and other watchdog groups. They say the two methods described in the Oct. 16 issue of the journal Nature are not a clear solution to the ethical conundrum.
Religious and bioethics leaders, including Richard Doerflinger and Arthur Caplan, both say that this is a no go.

The reasoning?

The "single blastomere" approach does not guarantee that the embryo will not be affected or harmed. The removal of a single cell from an eight-cell blastocyst alters the interaction between the cells comprising -- at that point in time -- the entire life, which will have an effect on its development.

The effect may be benign and allow the viable embryo to develop, or it may cause an abnormality in the embryo leading to a birth defect, or a number of other things. Given our (current) limited understanding of the human body, it is impossible to guarantee that no harm will come to the embryo.

Scientific obstacles aside, this technique currently relies on human skill to successfully perform. Having yet to meet a perfect individual (some close, but... not quite), this procedure can never truly be deemed 100% safe while humans are involved.

"Altered nuclear transfer" prevents the gene Cdx2 from being expressed, which intentionally stops a crucial developmental event from occurring: the formation of the trophoblast. The trophoblast is, essentially, the skin that holds the blastocyst's innards (i.e., its stem cells) from emptying all over the place.

Again, this technique currently relies on human skill, so the same caveat applies.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center weighs in against both methods. (As a side note, I love their visual layout and color scheme; very calming.)

The Christian Medical Association and the Family Research Council also opine that these methods are inherently wrong.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Two Alternative Stem Cell Derivations Moving Closer

Two alternative methods of deriving embryonic stem cells came a step closer to reality today. Will the debate about embryonic stem cell sources continue?

One: The single blastomere approach.

Bob Lanza and his colleagues at Advanced Cell Technology, a company in Worcester, Massachusetts, US, overcame this problem in mice by extracting just one cell from a very early 8-cell embryo called a morula. Lanza and his colleagues coaxed the single extracted cell, called a blastomere, into dividing into a colony of ESCs.

They did this by putting the blastomere in contact with pre-existing ESCs. These provided the correct signals for the blastomere to become a stem cell too.
Two: Altered nuclear transfer.

The second technique, dubbed “altered nuclear transfer” or ANT and developed by Rudolf Jaenisch and Alexander Meissner at the MIT’s Whitehead Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, overcomes a slightly different ethical objection, that of extracting ESCs from transient cloned “embryos”.

These are created from a patient’s “donor” cell, a skin cell for example, merged with a human egg emptied of its own nucleus. This forms an embryo similar to that from which Dolly the cloned sheep was produced, and has the potential to provide an exact tissue match for the patient.

The objection to this, again, is that an “embryo” capable of becoming the twin of the patient if implanted into the womb has to be destroyed in order to obtain the ESCs needed to treat the patient.

Jaenisch and Meissner got round this in mice by infecting the “donor” skin cell with a virus. This blocks the action of Cdx2, a gene essential for formation of the placenta. Only then was the skin cell merged with an egg, creating an entity unable to be implanted in the womb, and therefore not “qualifying” as a true embryo.
These two methods will allow some people to sleep easier at night -- increasing the pressure on Monsieur Bush to ease his Embryonic Stem Cell restrictions -- but will it be enough?

We shall see.

mumble: dedifferentiation, aka transdifferentiation aka nuclear reprogramming rocks!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Bush's Stem Cell Policy Helps Research?

Paul R. Sanberg argues in The Scientist that President Bush's policy of restricting federal funding of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research is the cause of the private industry's love for the field.

The majority of the piece is standard Republican rhetorhic about industry being better suited and more efficient than a government-run program. I don't take issue with his economic arguments -- my knowledge in that area is weak -- but I will have to disagree with his conclusion.

That said, NIH [ed., National Institutes of Health] funding does provide another level of scientific review and more open dissemination of results. The ideal situation from a science point of view is for the NIH to be involved in the development of viable stem cell therapies, whether they are based on cells of embryonic or adult origin. From a global perspective, however, it's hard to ignore the fact that federal limitations have caused and may continue to accelerate increased stem cell funding and research through other means.
While Sanberg does state that ideally, the NIH should be involved with embryonic stem cell research, he fails to address the negative consequences that lie in an unregulated, non-peer reviewed system.

Namely, any scientist can loudly proclaim cures for patients using a "newly discovered" ESC techniques. Without peer review and duplication of the claimed results by other labs, patients have no outside source to confirme or refute the purported miraculous cures. The lack of significant NIH involvement is, in my opinion, harmful and neglectful to American citizens.

Ethical methods to obtain ESCs exist. By failing to provide the NIH with the funding and tools it needs to properly oversee this research, Congress and the President are negligent in their duties to protect affected citizens.

Many scientists -- the majority, in fact -- would not tout undocumented and unsubstantiated "cures," but vultures do exist. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and desperate people will flock to these vultures.

The United States Government has a duty to protect its most vulnerable citizens. It needs to stand up and assume its duty.

Expanded Scope

Due to a lack of developments that affect the face of embryonic stem cell research, I have been negligent to my blog. I will attempt to make up for that negligence by broadening the scope of my blog beyond its currently narrow focus.

I will continue to blog on stem cells, but also on other news of interest.

Look for more, coming up later today.