Two American companies broke new ground this year by gaining regulatory approval to begin the first experiments using embryonic stem cells on people suffering from spinal cord injuries and blindness.
The use of the cells, which have been hotly debated for years, can transform into nearly any cell in the human body, which could lead to finding ways to eliminate such ailments as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, paralysis, and may even help fight aging.
As scientists find ways to refine new methods to get around the controversy that surrounds embryonic stem cell research, more and more human experiments could be on the way.
“After a decade of intense controversy, the field is finally ready to start proving itself and to actually start helping patients suffering from a range of horrific diseases,” Bob Lanza, chief scientist at Advanced Cell Technology, told AFP.
The company was cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November to begin testing a therapy derived from stem cells to treat a rare form of blindness that strikes in childhood, known as Stargardt’s Disease.
Clinical trials are expected to begin within a few months and results could be known within six weeks.
And in October, Geron Corp. announced it had begun its first-ever test of human embryonic stem cells in a patient suffering from spinal cord injury. About a dozen patients in all are expected to participate in the year-long study.
The primary goals of both company’s studies is to gauge safety, not necessarily to restore vision or mobility.
A key concern with the therapies is that the transforming cells could form tumors. But if the methods appear safe, both companies aim to expand their trials in hopes of eventually curing paralysis and blindness.
Since human embryonic stem cells were first isolated about twelve years ago by American scientist James Thomson and colleagues, the science field has been shrouded in controversy.
Former President George W. Bush banned federal funding for the research because it involves the destruction of human embryos, a ban that President Obama reversed shortly after taking office in 2009.
But that reversal was itself blocked in August of this year, when Judge Royce Lamberth blocked US government funding for stem cell research after ruling in favor of several groups, which included Christian organizations.
However, while the appeal is pending and federal funding is allowed to continue, some scientists have been left wondering what the future for stem cell research will hold.
To find a route around the problems associated with stem cell research, scientists in 2010 forged new paths toward creating induced pluripotent cells, which can transform into skin, blood or heart cells. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent cells.
Studies have shown, however, that induced pluripotent cells (iPS) are less efficient and more unpredictable than embryonic stem cells.
But Canadian researchers this year described in the journal Nature their method of turning adult human skin cells into blood without turning them back into pluripotent cells, making the process more time efficient and potentially safer.
And Harvard University scientist, Derrick Rossi, discovered a way to avoid risky genetic modification and instead use RNA molecules to reprogram adult human cells into pluripotent cells without altering the DNA.
Rossi said in September that his research was a “safe, efficient strategy… that has wide ranging applicability for basic research, disease modeling and regenerative medicine.”
Lanza said the advances offer promising goals toward treating a wide range of diseases, and someday could eliminate the need for amputation of limbs, blood transfusions and transplants from strangers.
“Some time in the future, perhaps in the lifetime of most of your readers, you’ll get in an accident and lose a kidney and they will take a skin cell and just grow you up a new organ,” Lanza said.
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