Special report: Regenerative medicine looks East

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Special report: Regenerative medicine looks East

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | July 08, 2011
From the April 2011 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

Before diving into China’s role here, it’s worth getting a refresher course on what stem cells are, why they’re important, and who’s against this research.

Stem cells are to full-fledged adult cells what clay is to a ceramic pot: an unmolded, flexible instrument that can be turned to different uses. Stem cells, in the young embryo, are “pluripotent” or uncommitted, and can become a wide variety of cells, such as nerve cells, muscle cells and skin cells.

Although the field is often so puffed with hype it threatens to obscure serious research, the hope is that stem cells could one day be used to tackle some of medicine’s most insoluble problems. Proposed therapies include regrowing dopamine-producing neurons in the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients or creating clusters of insulin-manufacturing cells to implant into the pancreas of a diabetic.

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Human embryonic stem cells, first isolated and grown in 1998, are typically derived from a 5-day-old embryo known as a blastocyst, which comprises only about 150 cells. Research on these very early-stage embryos, generally fertilized in vitro and donated from fertility clinics, has drawn the ire mostly from religious conservatives who believe it’s wrong to destroy human life, no matter if it has 100 cells or 100 trillion.

It’s important to note that no approved, scientifically validated therapy has been derived from embryonic stem cells, although a milestone was reached in 2009, when Menlo Park, Calif.-based biotech startup Geron Corp. received permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to run human trials of its experimental therapy on patients with acute spinal cord injuries. (Some researchers are skeptical of this treatment and think this therapy, and the breathless press surrounding it, is a prime example of the field’s weakness for misleading hoopla.)

Adult or “somatic” stem cells, on the other hand, are ethically uncontroversial and have been used for over four decades in at least one form – bone marrow transplants. Scientists have also been able to genetically reprogram some adult cells, turning them into more flexible stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells. However, recent research has suggested that this process could potentially lead to dangerous mutations or abnormalities, although scientists are working to fix this or at least screen out the troublesome cells.

Sea turtles and the stem cell boom
Where does China come into this picture?

On the backs, some would say, of “sea turtles,” the nickname given to Chinese scientists who have studied or spent much of their life in leading institutions in Europe or North America, but who return home, lured by cultural and family ties, as well as the promise of good labs. (The name apparently comes from the similarity of the words “sea turtle” and “overseas returnee” in Chinese.)

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