Sisyphus and Science, or History Repeats Itself

Researchers working at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) published a paper online last week in Cell Stem Cell discussing advances they’ve made in trying to coax adult cells to revert to embryonic stem cell-like states, without viruses or oncogenes (cancer-causing genes). They have outlined the molecular process involved in this nuclear reprogramming, something which up until now has been a very nebulous sequence of events. Being able to reprogram cells without viruses or oncogenes is crucial, as their involvement prohibits the use of the resultant embryonic stem cells (ESC) in humans.

While it is important to understand this process, a great amount of time and research money is being spent trying to convert adult cells to ESCs when there are somewhere around ½ a million frozen embryos sitting in fertility clinics around the country. When a woman undergoes in vitro fertilization (IVF), several embryos are created from the fertilization process. After a few days, the embryos are inspected and the healthiest few are selected for transfer (the actual number transferred varies with the age of the patient and the laws of the country where the procedure is done). The patient can then decide what to do with the remaining embryos: freeze (cryopreserve) them, donate them to research, or dispose of them. Many patients, thinking of the potential for life (or for future IVF procedures) the blastocysts possess, have an understandably difficult time making the decision to donate them to research or have them disposed of (for an interesting article on the difficulty of this decision, go here). Thus, the embryos are frozen and there they stay, sometimes indefinitely.

But, due to George W. Bush’s fanatical opposition of stem cell legislation, scientists can’t get research funding from the government to use even those frozen embryos that patients have chosen to donate to science. They remain untouched, alongside the hundreds of thousands of others, as the top scientists in the country try to figure out ways to make ESCs out of adult cells.

Ironically, IVF itself was the focus of political and ethical debates for years, attacked with the same arguments being used against ESC research. Now, however, it is a commonly accepted practice. And, while IVF provides infertile couples or women with the ability to have children—an amazing blessing for these people—ESCs have potential to be used in the treatment of any disease that involves the degradation of tissue. This would include Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, type I diabetes, spinal cord injuries, or stroke (to name a few). Thus, ESCs might be able to provide some blessings of their own.

While the advancements of the researchers at HSCI are great, I can’t help but wonder what type of developments we would be seeing if scientists didn’t have to focus on this hurdle of turning adult cells into ESCs, when there are hundreds of potential ESC lines just waiting out there to be created from frozen embryos. It’s like being tied down to a chair in the middle of the grocery store and dying of starvation.