Over the next 12 years, biotech and stem cell research could
enable doctors to replace aging skin, bone, and organs on demand,
thus restoring many ‘boomers and seniors alive today to a healthy,
more youthful state.
Already successful in replacing damaged heart tissue, stem cells
might also tip the scales in the war against cancer. Scientists
recently discovered that these proliferating wonders are the source
of most cancers. At the heart of every tumor lie a handful of
aberrant stem cells that feed malignant tissues.
Whitehead Institute’s Robert Weinberg believes this explains why
tumors often reappear after chemotherapy and radiation seemingly
destroyed them. It also suggests new strategy for developing
anti-cancer drugs: focus more on attacking cancer stem cells and
not, as at present, killing just any cells to shrink tumors.
On another front, Indiana University’s Dr. Michael Murphy uses
stem cells to treat a debilitating cardiovascular condition called
peripheral arterial disease, which causes poor blood circulation in
the legs, resulting in sores, ulcers; even amputations.
He and his colleagues use adult stem cells to create healthy
cells in the lining of blood vessels. They extract cells from bone
marrow, then process and inject them into patients’ legs. Every
patient in the tests experienced positive benefits. (cont.)
This week, researchers from Canada and Scotland made a major advancement in the field of stem cell biology. They discovered a method to successfully reprogram somatic cells into stem cells without the use of viruses.
Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are a type of stem cells derived from adult somatic cells by forcing expression of genes shown to sufficiently reprogram somatic cells into stem cells. iPSCs have been shown to possess key characteristics of embryonic stem cells (ESCs), the most important of which is the ability to give rise to cells of all three germ layers. iPSCs are an ideal source of stem cells because they circumvent the need for human embryos to generate stem cells. Additionally, because they can be generated from one’s own somatic cells which are readily available, iPSCs can be used for patient-specific therapies, thereby reducing the risk of immune rejection.
It is widely accepted that stem cells are involved in tissue
regeneration. It is also widely accepted that (in most organs) stem
cells are vanishingly rare. So: if there doesn’t happen to be a
stem cell adjacent to a site of damage, how can stem cells be
involved in the process of tissue repair?
One possible answer: There might be more stem cells than we
think, because we’ve been missing them for some reason. This
possibility (”both”) is strongly supported by the recent findings
of Zuba-Surma et al., who have discovered a
population of tiny pluripotent cells (termed, appropriately, very
small embryonic-like, or VSELs) scattered throughout the body.
Very small embryonic-like stem cells in adult
tissues—Potential implications for aging
Recently our group identified in murine bone marrow (BM) and
human cord blood (CB), a rare population of very small
embryonic-like (VSEL) stem cells. We hypothesize that these cells
are deposited during embryonic development in BM as a mobile pool
of circulating pluripotent stem cells (PSC) that play a pivotal
role in postnatal tissue turnover both of non-hematopoietic and
An honest assessment of my exposure to the extreme life-extension meme.
Since being exposed to the idea of extreme life extension, which admittedly was only several months ago, I’ve found myself reacting in a more skeptical and reactionary manner than I often do when confronted with other radical new futuristic ideas and technologies. When I read about possibilities of faster than light travel, I get excited. Predictions of nano-assemblers make me hopeful. I find designs for colonies on the Moon and Mars fascinating. But when I read about trends in regenerative medicine and nanotechnology that some experts believe will conquer death, I am not enthusiastic. Instead I become very skeptical, nervous and even angry. On one level, I am surprised that I could be anything other than overjoyed that ending death could be a possibility, I very much enjoy life and, as a living organism, I have a strong instinct to stay alive. Yet I find it extremely difficult to wrap my head around the idea of life without death.
So why does extreme life extension make me uncomfortable? I’m not, nor have I ever been a religious person, though I have respect for those who are. I was raised by two atheists with PhDs in science and I haven’t ever held out hope for an afterlife. It’s not that I don’t value human life – I value it very much. As a humanist, I believe very strongly that each human life is sacred and unique and believe it is within our power, and is indeed our responsibility, to work towards giving every person as good a life as possible. I also don’t believe I am a Luddite. I am increasingly excited about technology in general, I love my cellphone and the new snazzier one I will someday get. I love my computer and wonders of the Internet. I’m fascinated by the promise of the Semantic Web. I also embrace any technology that could cure diseases or repair injuries. But when it comes to anything that may fundamentally change the way I am or the way people are in general, I am very hesitant.
I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the reactions, thoughts and feelings I have when pondering extreme life extension, as I think they probably overlap with those of the people who have been or will be exposed to these ideas.
The logic problem: Defying death seems to break down logic
When I think about the end of death, I find it hard to express myself in logical, objective terms. I am tempted to call my reactions
against extreme life extension a “bias” because there is undoubtedly an emotional aspect and I do have a predisposition against the idea. But “bias” implies an illogical perspective – can considering death a certainty really be regarded as illogical? I begin to think, “Hasn’t everything that has ever lived also died?” Well, yes, except of course for the trillions of life forms that are alive right now. So the answer becomes not “Everything that has ever lived has died.” but “Everything that has ever died, has died.” This answer is so logically recursive that it isn’t even that useful.
There's no actual change in policy from the Obama administration on the stem cell front yet but some exciting things are happening and you can feel the pace picking up. In the past week Geron Technologies announced that they have received FDA clearance to put their GRNOPC1 into clinical human trials and researchers in Spain also announced that they had had success in treating lab rats with significant spinal injuries. While both studies have achieved impressive results in lab animals, a primary difference is that Geron uses embryonic stem cells to derive their hESC oligodendrocyte progenitor cells while the Spanish team used adult stem cells from tissue in the injured rats themselves to get their progenitor cells. Miodrag Stojkovic, who headed up the study done in Spain, said that "we need both adult and embryonic stem cells to understand our body and apply this knowledge in regenerative medicine."
It's worth noting that the success has come with injuries where the spinal cord has been traumatically compromised but not entirely severed. Also, the success in the rat recovery process has been demonstrated in injuries treated within 7-14 days of occurrence. Though there is hope that treatments will be derived for those whose injuries are older, rapid application seems to be key and has also been found effective in treating a variety of neural injuries including stroke and brain trauma.