Hooray! The Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded to two scientists for their work in the manipulation of living cells.
If that doesn’t sound like good news, then let me put it this way: two fellows have made it likely that, in the coming years, we will be able to treat dreadful degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, and we will be able to do it without killng anybody.
In the past, some scientists had made limited progress in trying to manipulate pluripotent stem cells into specialized cells. They knew that stem cells could be prodded to develop into any sort of cell, which would be useful for thousands of therapeutic purposes.
Now, where would you find these useful, pliable cells? In bone marrow, in umbilical cord blood, or even in amniotic fluid. And you can find stem cells in human embryos. You don't even have to use existing embryos, such as "extras" that couples chose not to implant after creating dozens of embryos for IVF. You can create an embryo in a lab for the express purpose of making it grow into certain types of cells. The useful cells are harvested, and the embryo is destroyed.
The New York Times, in covering the Nobel Prize story, grants a nod to those quaint “people who fear, on ethical or religious grounds, that scientists are pressing too far into nature’s mysteries” -- an observation designed to conjure up images of a fearful, ignorant mob persecuting what they don't understand. What they mean is, “Some of you object to making human beings so you can kill them and use pieces of them.” The Church has always condemned killing, broadly and specifically. But why should scientists listen to the Church?
Well, if it doesn't bother you when human embryos die for research, it should certainly bother you that embryonic stem cell therapy has been plagued with nightmarish problems -- the tendency to uncontrollably form teratomas, for instance. Teratomas are tumors made up of different types of tissue, and can contain, for instance, a hair, a tooth, even a rudimentary limb or eyeball. Here is a photo of a teratoma (not for the sqeamish).
So these are the results of embryonic stem cell research so far: monstrous tumors and frequent immune rejection of transplanted tissue derived from embryonic stem cells. This is where ESCR has taken us. Not a single cure, not a single bit of relief for patients. None.
But here is something new (well, new by Nobel Prize standards; the research that won the award was completed something like six years ago): something fresh, and something hopeful. Rather than taking something young and trying to make it mature, they now know that they can take something old and specific and turn back the clock, making it "ready and wiling" to become whatever the patient needs it to be.
According to the New York Times, (emphasis mine)
Biologists hope the technique will enable replacement tissues to be generated from a patient’s own cells for use against a wide variety of degenerative diseases. For the moment, that remains a distant prospect. But the cells have already proved useful in studying the genesis of disease. Cells generated from a patient are driven to form the tissue that is diseased, enabling biologists in some cases to track the steps by which the disease is developed. [emphasis mine]
The technology will be tested next year as scientists in Japan try to restore sight to patients with macular degeneration.
But you don’t want to hear about science from me. Go here, here, or here if you want to have the intricacies of John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka's research explained. What I got from my layman's reading is this:
We thought it was too late to go back. We thought that once a cell started down a certain path, its fate was sealed – that the cell would develop that the way it was programmed to do, and its function was set in stone. We thought that once it started differentiating itself, then that was that.
We thought embryonic stem cell research was here to stay.
Now it turns out we were wrong about cells and their potential. You can take an adult cell and, with a few small modifications, turn it around in its path – bring it back to infancy – go back to square one, where all things are still possible. No monsters necessary. The key to renewal and healing is still available to us, within us.
Maybe we can start over with stem cell research. Never mind that nightmare turn; never mind those dark and tortured paths. We can take an old story and give it a new beginning. We can turn things around.
Oh, hope! Oh, fresh starts. Thanks be to God for some good news, and may God bless and guide the hands and the minds of all scientists.