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post : Stem Cells: Of Mice or Men?

Stem Cells: Of Mice or Men?

By Dr. Jerry Mixon July 30, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

We still have quite a long while before we know enough about stem cells to safely use them in any therapeutic manner. They do show remarkable promise. I’ve also taken an interest because I have personal ethical qualms about the harvesting of embryonic stem cells for research purposes. While I can see the value, my Hippocratic Oath was quite specific on the subject of abortion…

Recently I read an article that instead of dealing with embryonic stem cells but rather induced pluripotent stem cells in mice. Click here to read the article. Induced pluripotent stem cells are basically skin cells or hair follicles that, through the magic of molecular biochemistry, have been returned to a non-differentiated stem cell state. For a while now there’s been some question as to whether induced pluripotent stem cells are actual undifferentiated stem cells. Or has the transformation into a library of tissues been limited by beginning life as skin cells?

Researches in China just answered that question. They are fully-fledged stem cells capable of becoming any sort of tissue in the body. That’s good news, since it means at least in theory, you can use induced pluripotent stem cells for anything you could use embryonic stem cells for.

They proved that growing a whole body from pluripotent stem cells is now possible. Essentially, the Chinese researchers took their manufactured stem cells and actually built an embryo. That embryo was then implanted in a womb and grew to term. A living genetic twin of the cell donor was born.

Remember, they are working with mice, not people. But don’t take too much comfort from that fact. Humans can have as much as 90% of their genes in common with mice. Before you read too much into that, remember that we also have something like 80% in common with bread yeast. The point is as far as cellular complexity goes, a mouse isn’t really a less complicated organism than a human; it’s just smaller. The process may not map directly from mice to humans but what we have here is a proof of concept. Refinements would most certainly be needed before you could use the process on a person but don’t doubt for a moment that those refinements are coming.

The allure of being able to one day take scrapings of skin cells and manufacture yourself a new set of eyes or a new heart are too appealing for the technology not to be developed. The question I have to ask at this point though is this: Given that an early stage embryo is essentially a mass of undifferentiated stem cells and that we’ve now demonstrated that viable fetus can be grown from that mass, is there a difference between embryonic stem cells from a fetus or induced pluripotent stem cells from your arm? Plant either of the stem cells in a womb and we could make babies; destroy either and you’ve destroyed a potential life. I don’t really know the answer. It’s something Hippocrates himself never had to think about but we’d better give it some thought. The technology isn’t going to wait.

To purchase the study I refer to in this article, click here.

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