New report could shake up stem cell debate
April 19, 2011, 3:29 am · Updated April 19, 2011, 12:00 am·
A recent study from Penn’s School of Medicine has the potential to affect a hot political topic — stem cells.
The study uncovered a new method for producing induced pluripotent stem cells — or iPSCs — almost 100 times more efficiently compared with previous techniques.
iPSCs are immature cells capable of forming different types of tissue throughout the human body, from hair follicles to the heart, scientific director of the Penn Institute for Regenerative Medicine Edward Morrisey said.
Morrisey, who headed Penn’s recent research in the field, explained that iPSCs are produced from adult fibroblast cells by effectively “altering the phenotype” of their DNA. This procedure contrasts more controversial techniques that utilize frozen embryos.
Pharmaceutical companies have benefited from iPSCs by using them as platform for drug testing. The cells may also be used for future work in the potential generation of new tissues, Morrisey said.
The main challenge with iPSCs, Morrisey added, has been the production efficiency of research.
University of California professor Shinya Yamanaka pioneered iPSC research in 2006 using four “transcription factors” to alter DNA strands. With this original technique, less than 20 cells could be induced from each sample of 100,000 normal adult cells.
The new method developed at Penn — which uses microRNA rather than Yamanaka’s four transcription factors — can create around 10,000 iPSCs from the same 100,000 cell sample, Morrisey said.
While he acknowledged that producing even the 20 iPSCs is a great achievement, working in the range of 10,000 can “make the difference” in future research.
Even so, unknowns still exist in iPSC research.
“We know [iPSCs] work. They can generate pretty much any cell in the body,” Morrisey said.
He added, however, “We don’t know how close these cells are from embryonic stem cells. We have to compare our cells to that,” he said, although no findings thus far have indicated that iPSCs are dramatically different from embryonic cells.
With the potential to eliminate or reduce the need for frozen embryo research, iPSC’s carry political weight in addition to scientific significance.
“[iPSC research] would definitely be a step in the right direction,” said College freshman and Penn College Republicans communications director Abe Sutton, though he admitted he is not an expert on the issue.
Sutton added that he cannot speak on behalf of everyone in College Republicans — which encapsulates a wide range of views for stem cell research. Even so, iPSCs could be a “vast improvement,” since many who do not support stem cell research are opposed to the moral implications of using embryonic cells.
College freshman and Penn Democrats communications director Andrew Brown also said iPSC could help bridge the divide on the touchy political subject.
“Maybe this can placate the concerns of the people on the other sides of the line,” he said.
Brown added, however, “I think that the people who are debating it are going to continue debating it at all levels.”
No matter what, he believes that the research should come first. Brown said people should be asking, “How can we better our research?” rather than debating.