What can and can’t be done with stem cells -- yet

October 14, 2008

The stem cell’s pluripotency is an almost mythical mutability, able to turn into a nerve cell, a bone marrow cell, a muscle cell, a hepatic cell–anything. Turning that myth into a reality is the work of George Q. Daley, of the Harvard School of Medicine.

The stem cell’s pluripotency is an almost mythical mutability, able to turn into a nerve cell, a bone marrow cell, a muscle cell, a hepatic cell–anything. Turning that myth into a reality is the work of George Q. Daley, of the Harvard School of Medicine.

Daley spoke at the Monday plenary session in Boston, giving a brief history of what has been done with stem cells, and what the nearest medical therapies are. 1998 was the first year that human embryonic stem cells, with their wonderful pluripotenciality, were isolated.

What has happened since then, unfortunately, is no match for what various snake oil sellers say has been done. Their Web sites promise miraculous cures for everything from autism to brain injury to ALS. “They’re exploiting desperate patients,” Daley said. Outside of a few limited studies inserting stem cells in bone marrow, the clinical proof of stem cells therapy in humans isn’t there yet.

What is developing, though, is a new way of studying disease states. Cells from, say, a patient with ALS can be collected, and (through a complex process) developed into pluripotent stem cells. Those cells can recreate, in the petri dish, the same motor neurons that cause such problems for the ALS patient. Research and drug development can then be done on a copied bit of the patient’s brain.

The promises of snail-oil pitchmen may even come true. Cells that are extracted from an organ, had their pluripotency developed, and placed back in the organ can conceivably do any number of marvels. Sickle cell anemia has been cured in one mouse, for example. And – this one received gasps form the audience -- a diabetic mouse even had malfunctioning hepatic cells removed, changed, and placed back. They now produce insulin.