Saturday, July 11, 2009


Some years ago, my daughter, Amy, and her family gave me a Leatherman for Christmas or my birthday. A Leatherman is a leather container that hooks to your belt and contains a multi-functioning tool, something like a Swiss Army knife. We went on vacation this past week and the bag I take my computer and the attendant electronic gadgets in contains my Leatherman. I often have an occasion to use it and, while I didn't use it specifically, I did use the small screwdriver that I keep in the same leather pouch.

Embryonic stem cells have been compared to a Swiss Army knife. Medical personnel harvest such cells early in the fetal stage. These particular cells have a unique characteristic known as pluripotency: they can turn into any one of more than 200 tissue types. So medical personnel hope to be able to use them to replace or regenerate bad heart tissue, spinal cords, brain cells, or whatever needs something to help it out. Some people, however, believe that human life begins at conception and argued that harvesting the cells is the same thing as killing a baby.

Apparently, if you insert these cells into adult skin it rewinds their developmental clock and gives them embryonic-like powers to morph into whatever is needed to fix a human being. Scientists have lauded stem cells as the most promising advancements in the medical field since they discovered the use of antibiotics. President Obama lifted the ban on federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research that had been imposed by George W. Bush. Now researchers are excited about advancements that could come, bringing cures for conditions like heart failure, Alzheimer's disease, and spinal cord injuries.

The manipulation of stem cells involves something known as a somatic-cell nuclear transfer. The cloned sheep, Dolly, was a result of this process. In it, you take an egg cell and supplant its nucleus with genetic material from an adult cell from the organism to be cloned. This will yield an embryo with the same DNA as the donor. So they took genetic material from an adult sheep and placed it in an egg cell after removing its nucleus.

Induced pluripotent stem cells are also known as iPS cells. There are also what is known as cord-blood stem cells. These come from babies' umbilical cords. Such cells are generally destined to become blood or immune cells, and aren't as versatile as embryonic or induced pluripotent adult cells. However, now cord-blood stem-cell transplants have become viable as an alternative to bone marrow transplants in treating blood disorders like leukemia when a bone-marrow match can't be found.

Most Americans favor embryonic-stem-cell research. The poll indicates that seventy-three percent favor the research.

Scientists in California using such methodologies as have been developed, have made previously crippled mice walk if they received injections soon enough after their initial injury. Now the California scientists have authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to do a clinical trial on human beings. They plan to see if they can make them walk after they have been crippled.

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