IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, the latest stem cell news.
This week, a research team from Harvard University announced that they've been able to reprogram adult stem cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. Their technique involves fusing an adult skin cell to a starter embryonic stem cell. But they say this isn't really ready for clinical use yet, because the cells have a double dose of DNA, one from each of the cells, and so far the researchers haven't figured out how to remove that extra genetic material, which makes the cell unusable except as a tool for basic research. If they can perfect this technique, which might take years, the researchers say it would provide an alternative to creating stem cells by therapeutic cloning. That's the technique that's at the center of the current political and ethical debate over embryonic stem cell research.
Could this technique satisfy both scientists working to develop stem cell medicines and those people who are opposed to any research that requires the destruction of days-old embryos? We'll talk now with a stem cell researcher not involved with this research about the study out in today's issue of the journal Science and its implications. And if you'd like to join our discussion, of course, our number is 1 (800) 989-8255, 1 (800) 989-TALK.
Mark Noble is a professor of biomedical genetics and neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. He joins us today from the campus there.
Welcome back to the program, Dr. Noble.
Dr. MARK NOBLE (University of Rochester Medical Center): Thank you, Ira. It's so good to be back.
FLATOW: Was it that simple, fusing an embryonic stem cell with a skin cell?
Dr. NOBLE: Well, absolutely. The cell fusion is something that's been used in the scientific community for a long time, and it's actually critical in making monoclonal antibodies, which are one of the great revolutions in biology. And it's also been known for a long time that if you fuse two different cells together, one of them is going to be dominant. So one of the things that's absolutely great about the way the Harvard group has behaved, and all credit to Dr. Eggan and his colleagues for this, is the way they have been explicit that this is not a replacement for what's going on at the moment. This is teaching us that yes, we can reprogram adult cells somehow, sometimes, and it's a step in a path to, as you say, eventually--eventually solving this debate. It doesn't do anything for all the folks who need help right now.
FLATOW: So when you smoosh these two cells together, you wind up with two sets of DNA, right?
Dr. NOBLE: Yes.
FLATOW: Why can't you just pluck one of them out?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. NOBLE: You'd need very small tweezers for that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. NOBLE: It's not that easy. Obviously there's a lot of people who are trying to figure out precisely how to do something like that. And it's possible, but, you know, Ira, it's critical to remember that all of these things are steps in a path. When we started in this field using fetal cells, for example, and fetal cells are great for this kind of work because the fetal animal is where you build tissue, and that's the job that the cells have. So that taught us what we needed to know to work with embryonic stem cells. Working with embryonic stem cells taught us things we needed to know to work with cells created by what's called therapeutic cloning, somatic cell nuclear transfer. That work taught us what we need to know for the Harvard group to do what it's doing. But these are all steps in a path. If you knock out different--the early steps, you never get to the late steps.
FLATOW: When this new kind of cell, this embryonic stem cell-like cell, is created, what are the characteristics that make you say it's an embryonic stem cell?
Dr. NOBLE: Simply that it can be caused to generate cells from the three different major cell groups of the body. So what they show in their paper is they have cells expressing something that you find in neurons, in nerve cells, something that you find in other cells with something that you find in muscle cells and other cells with something that you find in gut cells. So that's one of the earliest criteria, but that's a long way between there and actual transplantation.
You see, the problem is that in order to do a transplantation, you've got to have a gold standard that you aspire to in terms of recovery. For example, when we do a bone marrow transplant, any cell that does not reconstitute the functions of the blood and the immune system isn't good enough. So it's not just being able to get a cell in a test tube. Then you've got to go through all the years of work of transplantation and showing that this is really a suitable cell for repair. Right now the suitable cells for repair are the ones that we get--the ones that are most suitable for repair that are going into the clinic in some things like nervous system disorders--are cells that are derived from fetal specimens that were aborted for personal reasons of the mother.
FLATOW: But this technology, because it has the DNA of a skin cell, a person's own DNA in it, if you can take it to its logical conclusion and work out those problems means that it would not be rejected if it were put back in that person...
Dr. NOBLE: Abs...
FLATOW: ...for therapy, right?
Dr. NOBLE: Absolutely. And, you know, it's the scientists who are involved in this stem cell business. I've been in this game for over 20 years now. We've all been moving towards this direction. But the debate that's going on by those who are trying to block aspects of this research, they're not saying anything that we're not already trying to achieve. In fact, you know, the research at Harvard wasn't funded by people who were against embryonic stem cell research, right? It was funded by the scientists who were trying to get this to work. The embryonic stem cell scientists of today are going to be the adult stem cell scientists of tomorrow. They're the ones who are figuring out how to get to this point where we're using our cells from our own bodies to treat our own diseases.
FLATOW: And even though this is designed to do away with the embryos, embryos were used in this experiment.
Dr. NOBLE: And, in fact, some of the folks who are so excited about this research are the very ones who want to stand in the way of the embryonic stem cells that are needed for this research to occur. Isn't that ironic? And there's another irony. There's another irony that I think it's very important to point out, and it's a very sad one, that right now, the way this is going around the world is that those cells that are closest to the clinic, for things like treating central nervous system disorders, are cells derived from fetuses. All of us who are doing this kind of work want to move beyond that, but we see embryonic stem cells as absolutely necessary to do that.
What those people who are fighting so hard to block embryonic stem cell research are going to do is they are going to turn fetal tissue into a commodity. And we, the scientists who are trying to get beyond that, are the ones who are most worried about that, that right now, when as soon as something works and is useful in the clinic, it's useful for treating diseases, of course it's going to be used around the world. People are going to be lining up for treatments for whatever one of these horrible diseases it might work for, whether it's Parkinson's or diabetes or anything else you can think of.
Well, at that point, the scientific community has been prevented from creating the alternatives, and those people who have stood in the way of the science, who have tried to block the new science from happening because they hate embryonic stem cell research, they're going to be the ones who turn fetal tissues into marketplace commodities. I happen to disagree with that happening, but they're the ones that are going to do that.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can go to the phones, get a couple calls.
Shawn in Ft. Lauderdale. Hi, Shawn.
SHAWN (Caller): Hey. We're still suffering from brownouts here in Ft. Lauderdale.
SHAWN: We dodged a bullet last night, but--so I'll try and make this brief. It's regarding the language of--and hopefully trying to sway the issue--sway the attention to this. Instead of saying embryonic stem cell research, why don't they say something like blastocystoidal(ph) stem cell research? I mean, that's really what it is. I mean, if it goes any further past the blastocystoid(ph), it actually becomes differentiated cells. And what I wanted to ask you, something I've wondered for a long time, is--let's see. I don't really know how to say it, but I've heard this on an episode of "NOVA," I think it was, and they were talking about how they take all the DNA material out of the egg and then they put the donor DNA in.
SHAWN: And then that's what makes it a cloned embryo. And therefore, there is no conception. Therefore, these people--these extremists who are trying so hard to block this, when they say life begins at conception--therefore if we say cloned blastocystoidal, you know, stem cell research, that sort of blows it out of the water.
Dr. NOBLE: So, Shawn, there's a lot of good points that you raise. So, you know, let's talk about the blastocyst just for a second.
Dr. NOBLE: So the blastocyst is a simple ball of a hundred cells. It doesn't have any nerve cells or muscle cells or gut cells. It is how any species that has sexual reproduction starts to build an embryo.
SHAWN: Yeah, it's just ...(unintelligible).
Dr. NOBLE: And if it doesn't implant in the wall of the uterus, we don't--in mammals, we don't even call it a pregnancy.
SHAWN: Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. NOBLE: So, to me, as a scientist, it--I have to say, it's a ball of cells. It's a way mammals--it's a blastocyst. It's the way mammals make more mammals.
Dr. NOBLE: It's a step along the path. And, in fact, in England, what has been decided, I think very courageously and intelligently, is to say that we--that the scientists there can generate embryonic stem cells and blastocysts and they stop at the stage before you generate the different cell types of the body.
SHAWN: Have they been able to achieve this yet?
Dr. NOBLE: Sure.
SHAWN: Like, they've done this, so why don't we just call it either cloned--What?--cloned blastocystoidal(ph) stem cell research and--see, when people think embryos, and, I think, especially these extremists, they picture something with a spine and a head and arm buds and a tail. You know?
Dr. NOBLE: Yeah, I know, and, you know, we in the scientific community, we...
SHAWN: ...(Unintelligible) the language is what I'm saying.
Dr. NOBLE: Yeah, that's right, and we don't think that way because an embryo is different from a fetus. You don't have a fetus until it's--implants in the uterine wall and starts developing very specifically. But, you know, it's--I think that the issue--I think the language is important, but I think what's much more important is what's--where's the support for the research gonna come from.
Dr. NOBLE: So in the United States we have been incredibly fortunate having the National Institutes of Health, which is one of the greatest discovery machines in the history of the planet and, frankly, one of the greatest wealth creators in the history of the United States. The whole biotechnology industry would not exist were it not for the support of the National Institutes of Health and the university systems. Well, if the NIH does not get the extra money it needs to support this kind of research, the money has to come from somewhere, and one of the things that has really been very--it's frustrating in this debate, let's say, is that those who are so opposed to embryonic stem cell research appear to be doing zero, so far as I can tell, to raise the funds to fund alternative approaches. So my challenge to them, every time I'm in these debates with them, is to say, `You go out and you raise a hundred million dollars. And spending all of your time trying to be obstructive--go out and work with your groups, raise a hundred million dollars to create a funding initiative to support the kind of research you think is important, and the scientists will do the work.' But I have yet to have a single person take me up on that challenge.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling. Thanks for calling, Shawn.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking about stem cell research with Mark Noble, professor of Biomedical Genetics and Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.
There is a bill--there--well, two bills up on Capitol Hill that are--that have been, you know, talked about, getting ready to be--I think the House one passed; the one in the Senate is still waiting to be voted on. And they--you know, they've been saying maybe if we, you know, wait a long enough time, there will be alternatives. I know the president's bioethics chair was on here talking about alternatives. He mentioned one of these--this alternative, when he was on air a few weeks ago, has a possibility of making the point moot. Do you think that legislators are going to look at this kind of research and say, `Hey, well, maybe we shouldn't relax these--the restrictions that President Bush put on it in 2001?'
Dr. NOBLE: Well, ...(unintelligible) I want to remind you that one of the things that Dr. Kass said which was--which I thought was a very, very important statement, was that these issues should not be legislated. Now there--one of the bills that is being thrown around is the Brownback bill, which states precisely that if you need to have some kind of therapy that would be achieved by somatic cell nuclear transfer research, it would ban it in the United States, and if you go to Canada or Korea or Germany or somewhere where the research is being done, and have that work done, using your own cells to treat your own diseases, and you come back to America, you're guilty of importing the product of human cloning and you go to jail for 10 years. That's one of the bills that these folks are trying to push through. So they're trying to impose upon everybody in the United States this restrictive practice that prevents those who have different opinions about when life begins from benefiting from one of the greatest medical advances we've had since antibiotics and vaccination.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Helen in St. Louis. Hi, Helen.
HELEN (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi there.
HELEN: I was just wondering if you are going to have someone on from the other side of the fence on this issue.
FLATOW: What side is that?
HELEN: Well, the anti-human cloning side.
Dr. NOBLE: Well, Helen, in the last show, for my 15 minutes, Leon Kass got at least a half-hour. So I have another 15 minutes--I have this 15 minutes due to balance the slate here. But it's good to have these as debates.
HELEN: But, I mean, you have...
HELEN: You have a whole hour today, I think.
FLATOW: No, we had Leon Kass on--had 40 minutes to talk about his side of it. So...
Dr. NOBLE: That's right.
FLATOW: And he was the president's--he's the one we were just talking, the head of the president's bioethics committee who...
HELEN: I see. But you know what? I think that, you know, you're mischaracterizing the other side. I mean, you're calling us extremists. You're saying that we're--that we--what we think--that we believe that embryos are--have tails. I mean, you're--all kinds of things.
Dr. NOBLE: Helen, I said nothing like that.
FLATOW: Helen, that was the caller. Helen, why don't you tell us what your feelings are, then?
HELEN: Well, I mean, I just feel that there's the potential for human life. If a clone can grow into a human person, that's how we all started, and that's what we think--I think we should protect.
Dr. NOBLE: OK. Helen, that is a belief that you have, and I understand it and I respect it. OK? I respect it, but I don't agree with it. Just as...
Dr. NOBLE: ...an acorn is not the same thing as an oak tree, I don't think that a blastocyst is the same as a human being. And I have to say that my concern, as someone who does stem cell research, my primary concern is with the millions of people with horrible diseases who may benefit from advances that come out of this research...
HELEN: So the end justifies the means?
Dr. NOBLE: Wait. Let me finish, Helen.
Dr. NOBLE: I do not think that living, breathing people--living--I think that living, breathing people do have priority over balls of cells. I do not equate a blastocyst with a human being. Moreover, those who are against this research are also neglecting the fact that every year a hundred thousand blastocysts, approximately, are thrown away from in vitro fertilization clinics.
FLATOW: Dr. Noble, we gotta go.
Dr. NOBLE: OK. Ira, thank you.
FLATOW: We will--we'll--abs--listen, we've talked about this a lot. We'll be certainly talking about it a lot more, getting all the sides in as we go. Dr. Mark Noble, University of Rochester, thank you very much.
Short break. We'll be right back. Don't go away.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.