PZ Myers on the recent breakthrough in stem cell research that allows for the transformation of adult human cells into something approaching the capacities of stem cells:
This discovery is probably going to become a political football in short order, with the far right politicians who have restricted American research into embryonic stem cells claiming vindication. However, let’s point out some realities here. Americans did not make this discovery; Japanese researchers did. It required understanding of gene expression in embryonic stem cells, an understanding that was hampered in our country. It’s going to require much more confirmation and comparison between the induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells as part of the process of making this technique useful — science doesn’t take just one result from a few labs and accept it as gospel truth. And we definitely need to figure out better ways of switching the four genes on. Figuring that out will require more research into how organisms switch cells into the ES state in situ — we can’t figure that out from these cells with inserted, artificial gene constructs.
Another essential point is that scientists are excited about this work because it opens up avenues for basic research into development and differentiation. These cells are NOT useable for therapies…the immediate, practical applications that the electorate wants from stem cell research. They also cannot be used for reproductive cloning, although that won’t trouble most people. These are cells with retroviral infections, potential unknown mutations, and that have genetic modifications that make them prone to collapse into cancers. We are not going to be able to grow new organs and tissues for human beings from a few skin cells using this particular technique. It’s going to take more work on embryonic stem cells to figure out how to take any cell from your body, and cleanly and elegantly switch it to a stem cell state that can be molded into any organ you need. What this work says is that yes, we’ll be able to do that, it isn’t going to be that difficult, and that we ought to be supporting more stem cell research right now so we can work out the details.
Or we can just sit back and let the Japanese and Europeans and Koreans do it for us, which is OK, I suppose. Just keep in mind that ceding the research to others means giving them a head start on the development of all the subsequent breakthroughs, too, and that what we’re doing is willingly consigning US research in one of the most promising biomedical research fields ever to an also-ran, secondary status.
Actually, that sounds perfectly fine to me.