Saturday, November 24, 2007

Stem Cell Breakthrough

So we're doing the family chitchat over dinner yesterday evening, and my daughter is on about how much more opulent her lifestyle will be than the one she currently enjoys with her mother and I. This child has been versed in the realities, so it's a humbling parental reality check to witness all those carefully sown facts disintegrate into nothingness in the face of peer and media information onslaught (consensus reality).

Anyway, not wanting to harsh her thanksgiving mellow with my own somber outlook on what's around the signpost up ahead, I ask her if she's on top of this week's big news in the life sciences? Thankfully, both children are very interested in biology and I've made a point of trying to steer them in the direction of computational biology, genomics, and so forth, because this area has an exceptional concentration of new institutional investment in these disciplines, and, they have easy access and extensive potential exposure to folks working in this fundamentally important area;
To help explain this, we turn to Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist and professor at Brown University. He also serves as an adviser to the NewsHour's Science Unit.

Well, Ken, let's start with the science here. What does it actually mean to reprogram cells?

KENNETH MILLER, Cell Biologist: Well, what it means to reprogram cells, builds upon essentially a trick. And it's a trick that our own reproductive cells pull off when a sperm and egg unite to form an embryo.

The cells in an adult body -- skin cells, muscle cells, nerve cells -- are sort of at dead ends. In other words, that skin cell is going to remain a skin cell; that muscle cell is going to remain a muscle cell.

But our reproductive cells have the ability to go back to stage one, form a single-celled embryo, and then grow into every one of the tissues and cells in the body. That reprogramming is something that happens with us normally between each generation.

What developmental biologists have longed to understand is how that reprogramming takes place. And what this development means today is that we are a little bit closer to understanding how to switch on the reprogramming, take one of our adult cells, trick it into thinking it's part of an embryo, and hopefully get that cell to develop into cells that we really need to repair or to heal the body.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this work came out of studies that were done on mice, right? We talked about it on the program when that was done. So what's the advance here?

KENNETH MILLER: Well, the advance here, on one hand, the advance isn't much. In other words, you could minimize it. You could say, back in June, three laboratories reported that it was possible to pull this feat off, of taking an ordinary adult cell, sticking a few extra genes in it, and reprogramming it to become an embryonic stem cell, and that was done in one species, mice.

The development today is now it's been done in another species. And you might say, "Big deal." But that other species happens to be human beings, human cells. And now it's getting close to having direct application in hospitals and in laboratories.
You never know. Maybe we are on the cusp of the singularity and Moore's Law applied to the quantum computational apparatus of life itself will unlock a bounty and a utopian rather than dystopian future for this child of mine dreaming of opulence....,

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