Earlier this year, U.S. President Obama lifted the restriction of federal funding of human embryonic stem cells—a controversial field of biomedical research. The ban, originally introduced by President Bush on August 9, 2001 in an effort to stop the destruction of embryos, banned scientists from making new embryonic stem cell lines, but allowed them to use the 21 lines already created. The band was frustrating for many scientists who argued that that the pre-existing lines were not diverse enough to study many diseases. New stem cell lines, which may have disease-specific mutations, would have also allowed scientists to investigate a greater range of disease pathways. These new lines could yield fundamental insight into how diseases are caused and how they may be treated or cured. Further, many of the established lines were defective which could make them dangerous to transplant into people. Although laboratories still continued to use stem cells to study diseases, they had to find their own ways to fund their projects and often had to design separate lab areas.
Stem cells, which are derived from the inner cell mass of a developing blastocyst, are pluripotent, meaning they can differentiate into any cell of the three germ layers: endoderm, mesoderm and ectoderm. Scientists believe that stem cells hold the “key” for discovering why diseases occur, and will provide treatments for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and heart disease to name a few.
Opponents of the ban however, argue that stem cells are not even needed anymore to generate pluripotent cells since scientific advances have shown promise for the ability to induce adult cells to go back to the pluripotent state. These cells, known as induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS have recently begun to show a lot of promise. For example, one of our own, Dr. Andras Nagy, a Toronto researcher based out of Mount Sinai was the first to reprogram adult human cells into embryonic-like stem cells without using viruses that could potentially cause cancer. In a seminal Nature paper, Nagy’s group describes a new PiggyBac transposition system where they can insert the reprogramming factors and subsequently take them out. This discovery will change the face of stem cell therapies because in essence, we will be able to take a person’s own cell, reprogram it, lead it to differentiate into a necessary cell type, and put it back into them.
In any case, the field of pluripotent cells is a “hot” area of research with promise for advancing human health. With Obama overturning the ban, stem cell research will likely continue to advance with newly developed strong collaborations and likely the development of stem cell databases. This will hopefully get us one step closer to finding the cause, and perhaps the cure, for many diseases that affect human health.
By Alisha Jamal, University of Toronto