With Frist recently announcing his support for expanding embryonic stem cell research, many people probably believe that the cloning and embryonic stem cell debates are over, but they are wrong. Bush signing H.R. 810 into law wouldn't end the debates, either.
Sufficiently funding somatic cell reprogramming—dedifferentiation and transdifferentiation—would.
One of the primary benefits of embryonic stem cell lines, as claimed by researchers, is the ability to create and study the disease process in affected cell lines to watch how the disease develops and to test potential drugs against. There are currently three main ways to obtain diseased stem cell lines:
- Deriving diseased cell lines from cryopreserved embryos at IVF clinics.
- Therapeutic cloning.
- Cell reprogramming.
The most well known and widely debated option is second: therapeutic cloning. As therapeutic cloning creates an embryo, this option is not a realistic option.
The final option, cell reprogramming, removes both cloning and destroying embryos from the debate. Directly reprogramming an adult cell from one type to another is known as transdifferentiation, while reprogramming an adult cell to a more pluripotent state is known as dedifferentiation.
An example application of transdifferentiation would be biopsying skin cells from a person, directly converting them into islet cells, and then transplant them back into the same person to treat Juvenile Diabetes. Not only does transdifferentiation avoid creating an embryo, it also avoids potential immune rejection problems.
The one problem with this technique is that people with diseases caused by genetic abnormalities may not be able to be their own donors, as the genes would be the same. Two options exist to solve this problem: the first being gene therapy, and the second being obtaining cells from a donor.
An example application of dedifferentiation would be biopsying skin cells from a person and culturing the cells directly into embryonic stem cells. (This should sound familiar, as dedifferentiation is just a specific form of transdifferentiation.) These stem cells could then be grown, cultured to become islet cells, and then transplanted to treat Juvenile Diabetes.
The dedifferentiated stem cells could also be used in labs to allow researchers to study disease processes.
Transdifferentiation, including dedifferentiation, will allow researchers a way to obtain the cells they need to study the early stages of disease processes without destroying embryos or subjecting women to risky hyperovulation sessions, as eggs would not be required.
With Bill Frist making references to cell reprogramming and the President's Council on Bioethics endorsing somatic cell reprogramming, the research has been acknowledged as legitimate on a federal level. All it needs to achieve reality is significant funding.
During this August recess, please contact your Congressmen and ask them to support research into cell reprogramming. Without proper funding, we will stay mired in a needless debate.
Please, contact your Congressmen.