Menus Subscribe Search
stem-cells

(PHOTO: LUCHSCHEN/ SHUTTERSTOCK)

Your Stem Cells Are Here to Stay

• June 17, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: LUCHSCHEN/ SHUTTERSTOCK)

The controversy surrounding them probably isn’t going anywhere, either.

With each new report of a technological breakthrough, stem cells both inspire hope in patients and incite ethical controversy. Some see stem cells as a potentially game-changing cure for currently terminal diseases; others see them as an unnecessary obsession of scientists who lack reverence for human life at its earliest stages. So, is this debate worth the time and energy? Yes, it is. Stem cells occupy a fundamental place in human biology and disease, which means, as an issue, they aren’t going away.

The reason scientists have focused so intensely on stem cells is because these cells sit at the beginning of an elaborate decision-tree that accounts for why our bodies are made up of hundreds of different types of cells, ranging from motor neurons to fat cells, despite the fact that nearly all of those cells carry exactly the same genetic material. The process of development from a single fertilized egg cell into a full-grown adult is possible because different types of cells make different decisions about what parts of our DNA should be active. A neuron is a neuron, and not a liver cell, because that neuron has a particular pattern of active DNA. This pattern of active DNA is achieved in stages, beginning with a stem cell and working down a DNA decision-tree until the final, specialized cell type is reached. In other words, nerve cells generally can’t produce other nerve cells; stem cells produce nerve cells—and fat cells, and everything else. Just as nobody becomes an adult without passing through childhood first, specialized cells that carry out specific jobs are created only by passing through a stem cell stage.

The fundamental position of stem cells in our biology means that as our understanding improves, so will our ability to manipulate human life at its very beginning.

The vital role of stem cells in creating each kind of specialized cell is why stem cells are a big focus of biomedical research. Many diseases could potentially be treated by transplanting freshly created supplies of specialized cells that have been damaged during the course of a disease: retinal cells in blindness caused by macular degeneration, skeletal muscle cells in muscular dystrophy, pancreatic cells in diabetes, neurons in spinal cord injuries, and dopamine-producing cells in Parkinson’s disease. To create new supplies of these different types of cells, you must begin with stem cells, and preferably stem cells that carry the DNA of the patient.

IN PRINCIPLE, THE PROCESS of treating diseases with stem cells made with a patient’s DNA will work something like this: 1) take easily available cells (like skin cells) from a patient with, say, Parkinson’s Disease, 2) transform the skin cells into stem cells, and then 3) coax those stem cells to become dopamine-secreting cells, which you can transplant back into the patient. If you’re really ambitious, you can edit the DNA of those cells to repair the Parkinson’s-causing mutation before transplanting them back into the patient. A second approach is to 1) take isolated DNA from a patient, 2) transplant that DNA into a donated human egg cell, 3) induce that egg cell to become an embryo and extract the stem cells, then 4) use those stem cells to create specialized cells that get transplanted back into the patient.

Both of these methods are being pursued by scientists, and neither one is, at this point, without risk. The process of directly creating stem cells from a patient’s skin cells involves mucking around with genes that can lead to cancer: you may cure one disease, only to produce another. The second process, transplanting a patient’s DNA into a donated egg cell, while much more reliable, requires donated egg cells, involves creating and destroying embryos, and is also the first step toward making cloned copies of human beings.

Neither of these approaches to creating stem cells will ultimately avoid the ethical controversies, because the fundamental position of stem cells in our biology means that as our understanding improves, so will our ability to manipulate human life at its very beginning. Scientists may soon be able to routinely create clinically usable stem cells without harvesting embryos, but as they become better at creating and manipulating stem cells, it will be easier than ever to create life from scratch outside of the womb. Creating customized human embryos for research and other applications will be routine, and cloning a human being will be a feat that won’t require the resources of an elite, well-funded research lab. And so, we will have to choose how to resolve the controversies—or not—but technology won’t do it for us.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.