Skip to comments.Sweet cell of success (Major breakthrough in adult stem cell research could end ethical debate)
Posted on 03/21/2005 7:51:51 AM PST by dead
A poorly funded Queensland team has bucked received wisdom by proving that adult stem cells have the same life-saving potential as those from embryos.
ALAN Mackay-Sim and his small team of researchers investigating the human sense of smell have tended to get up the noses, pardon the pun, of the serious scientists working in the field of stem-cell exploration.
Most of the real players were to be found studying embryonic stem cells at such long-established research centres as Monash University and the University of Queensland, although the work of those other Australian scientists targeting bone marrow and neural stem cells was also highly regarded.
But no one quite knew what to make of Mackay-Sim's Griffith University team that somehow had taken an odd turn into the murky tributary that is the olfactory mucosa - the organ of smell in the human nose - and begun rowing against the tide by studying adult stem cells taken from the nose.
The prevailing science was that where embryonic stem cells had multi-potentiality and could give rise to all cell types in the body, adult stem cells were old dogs that couldn't be taught new tricks. Even those stem cells in tissues that do regenerate, such as skin, blood and olfactory mucosa, can only give rise to, respectively, more skin, blood and olfactory mucosa, so the accepted wisdom went.
Moreover, there was also the suspicion that adult stem cells were the last refuge of the religious Right, that after 40 years of intensive fossicking in this stream the only scientists still stubbornly panning for gold were those whose ethical beliefs wouldn't allow them to experiment with embryos left over from fertility treatment.
Certainly, adult stem-cell research had long been left behind by governments, corporations and benefactors wanting to sponsor scientific advances. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last November was able to persuade voters to approve a $4.04 billion investment in embryonic stem-cell research over the next decade. Meanwhile, by contrast, Mackay-Sim's team laboured away on an annual budget of a couple of hundred thousand dollars, the pickings so slim that one key researcher, Wayne Murrell, was forced to take a scientific time-out to earn some real money by working as manager of a grocery store.
"It has been a disregarded area of research generally," Mackay-Sim, the 2003 Queenslander of the Year, concedes wryly. "Whenever I presented a paper, the feedback I would get was that our work was 'interesting but weird'."
Yesterday, in one of those sublime moments with which the history of science is replete, the tributary might suddenly have become the mainstream. With the publication of Mackay-Sim's research on the Developmental Dynamics website, the twin arguments that adult stem cells lack the multipotency of embryonic stem cells and might not be as useful for stem-cell therapies were abruptly turned on their heads.
"Our experiments have shown adult stem cells isolated from the olfactory mucosa have the ability to develop into many different cell types if they are given the right chemical or cellular environment," explains Mackay-Sim.
New nerve cells, glial cells, liver cells, heart cells, muscle cells -- all were grown in a dish from stem cells from the human nose. Establishing the versatility of these adult stem cells was in itself a significant scientific achievement, but the Griffith University team's experiments also uncovered a raft of additional advantages.
For starters, such cells are easily harvested. The research team's doctor, prominent Brisbane ear, nose and throat specialist Chris Perry, was able to extract them from consenting patients - and later from the scientists themselves - by simply spraying the inside of the nose with a local anaesthetic and then removing a sample no bigger than a grain of pepper.
The harvested stem cells were not only readily available but proved to be astonishingly easy to grow in the laboratory, with millions of them forming within weeks. Down the track, once all the required trials are carried out - which could take at least another five years - it might well be possible for a healthy person to have his olfactory stem cells harvested, a mildly uncomfortable process that takes barely 10 minutes, grown in a lab and then frozen for injection years later into - to give just one example - the withered muscles of a heart after a heart attack.
For the moment, however, the most significant advantage is that these cells can be harvested from anyone of any age and without the need for major surgery, which is the only way scientists have been able to obtain other neural stem cells in the brain. And unlike adult stem cells in the blood and bone marrow, they are abundant and easily multiplied.
From the standpoint of pure science, the advantages keep stacking up.
Brisbane neurologist Peter Silburn, a member of the National Health and Medical Research Council and the clinical and scientific adviser to the project team, is most excited by the fact that researchers have been able to take cells from patients with Parkinson's disease and turn them into neurones to enable him to directly study the cells involved in the disease.
"We can now learn about the condition in ways we never could before," says Silburn.
Moreover, unlike embryonic stem cells, which reportedly can trigger tumours in one in five cases at the point of injection, these adult stem cells grow in a controlled fashion. As well, they are phenotypically stable, meaning that once they turn into, say, heart muscle, they remain heart muscle and do not revert to their original guise, as embryonic stem cells have been known to do.
And because they are the patient's own cells, there is no risk of the body rejecting them as alien. Hence there is no need for immune system-suppressing drugs, nor for therapeutic cloning.
Yet perhaps the most significant advantage is that this apparent breakthrough might eliminate the ethical dilemma that has fused itself to embryonic stem-cell research.
Pro-lifers, with the Catholic Church the most prominent and outspoken, have refused to be swayed by the "end justifies the means" logic of researchers who have argued that the destruction of embryos is but a small price to pay for the possible elimination of such diseases as diabetes or Parkinson's.
As Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell put it recently: "We are not in favour of producing human beings to destroy them for scientific purposes."
If the adult stem cells grown by the Griffith team do turn out to be as dramatically useful as all the experiments suggest, there will be even less of an ethical dilemma attached to their use than there is to a blood transfusion. After all, where is the ethical dilemma in having a person's cells used to help cure their own afflictions?
Staunch Catholic Tony Abbott, the federal Health Minister who officially launched the publication of the Mackay-Sim research yesterday at Griffith University and then had to grin and bear it as the principal author and Silburn publicly reminded him that the federal Government's contribution to the project had been precisely nothing, declined to describe the apparent breakthrough as a godsend.
"It's a science-send, not a godsend," Abbott said. "But if adult stem cell research is as prospective as this particular project seems to suggest, well, then all those moral dilemmas we were wrestling with a few years ago and will have to wrestle with again when the legislation [permitting the use for research of excess embryos created through IVF before April 2002] comes up for review, we may be delivered from."
Pell is hoping for nothing less than a decisive shift in the debate. "I hope it will [lead to that]," he says. "I think it deserves to be evaluated with the full rigour and I hope that after that rigorous assessment we'll see just how significant this is. I think there is a real possibility that [the Griffith University scientists] have made an enormous contribution."
The question now is how yesterday's stunning development will be received by the embryonic stem-cell research industry.
Stephen Livesey, chief scientific officer of the Australian Stem Cell Centre, which undertakes adult as well as embryonic stem-cell research, takes an understandably balanced view of the publication of Mackay-Sim's findings.
"Adult stem-cell and embryonic stem-cell advances don't happen in isolation," says Livesey. "One field of inquiry impacts significantly on the other in combining to form a growing body of knowledge about the ways in which stem cells behave and can be controlled. The success that the team at Griffith University has reported will be important in understanding the properties of both adult and embryonic stem cells."
Pell, who perhaps has studied the human condition somewhat more closely, has his fears.
"One of the complicating factors is that a lot of people have a lot of money tied up in embryonic stem cells," he says.
The man at the epicentre of this scientific tremor, Mackay-Sim, is hoping that science, pure science, will triumph in the end.
"I hope," he says, "it will excite people as it excites me."
I don't know, it seems doing research on adult stem cells takes all the fun out of it.
A perfect example of the uselessness of government research, and the potency of individual minds unfettered by government strings. Hooray for the private enterprise, seat-of-the-pants approach.
Let this be a lesson to taxpayers worldwide.
And private industry wants results and profits, so that money would abandon embryonic research in a minute if the funds were more productively spent elsewhere.
Nice thought, but venture capitalists don't fund research. Neither do most companies nowadays, which is why technology innovation has largely stopped in the US.
Nonsense. VCs fund a great deal of research, along with companies of various sizes, including stem cell research.
The vast majority of medical research is funded by NIH, not corporations. As for VCs funding research, don't be ridiculous. Research has a minimum 3-5 year time horizon (othewise it's called "developmnet") just to get a handle on the technology risks, and that's well beyond the scope of venture capital firms.
That's right - they fund useless Internet based companies and not biomedical research.
VC companies as well as pharmaceutical companies fund a lot of biomed research. And, if vast sums weren't extracted in taxes, taken via lawsuits, or stopped because of regulations, we'd have a lot more private ventures.
FWIW, these guys work for a university, no doubt funded by the Australian government. They obviously did a lot of grant-writing, though....
Stem cell research Poing. Looks like it works from adult stem cells taken from the nose.
When they get adult stem cells to do everything embryonic stem cells can do, the adult stem cells will also be capable of becoming embryos. I don't see how this changes anything, for people who insist that embryos be treated as full fledged people. What difference does it make how something got to be an embryo?
Actually, this hasn't been true for at least five years now. And the VC firms that funded "useless Internet based companies" are no longer with us. In fact, just about the only thing that's getting VC money in the former Silicon Valley are biomed firms, but again that's not research, it's product development.
It would definitely be in the best interests of VCs making money to have taxpayers fund their risk. The recent ESC proposition in CA being an example. If they can get the NIH to fund the risk, that's a great deal for them. I have some investments I wouldn't mind having the taxpayers take the risk on too.
I worked for a startup medical company with a very smart CEO. He was able to get a couple rounds of financing out of some VCs, and he's now in charge of a successful, private company. Man do they hate him! LOL! I'm sure they'll get their money back some day. The company is about 11 years old.
VCs lose a lot of money on technology R&D. Why do they do it? Because it only takes one winner to make up for the losses.
Aside from the risk factor, the real problem is that research usually benefits someone other than the person funding it -- that's just the nature of research. So to be fair, most technology research has to be broadly funded. Up until the Clinton Administration, the vast majority of technology funding came from the federal government for this reason, but was then decried as "corporate welfare", and slashed. Welfare, yeah, show me any other welfare spending that has a 1000% ROIC.
VCs lose a lot of money on technology R&D.
No, they do not. VCs invest in businesses, which involve some development but certainly not research.
Imagine that, Smart Snot; these guys might have sneezed up a fortune.
I agree, and government funded research is the rare exception where government spending really pays off.
Now you're the one trying to take all the fun out of it.
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