Building stem cell-based cures brick by brick

There’s an image I love in an interview with Northwestern University stem cell scientist John Kessler. He is a neurologist who turned to stem cell science after skiing accident left his daughter with a spinal cord injury.

In the Q&A, Kessler has this to say about how science progresses:

I often use this analogy: science is like building a building. You can’t just say you want a 50-story building and then start building the 50th floor first. It doesn’t work that way. Your goal is to get to that 50th story, but you have to build brick by brick. Then others can come along and start building on top of that brick. That’s how science works. I believe this will be one of those bricks that gets people closer to that goal. The beauty of science is once you put a brick in place, it’s there forever.

I think that’s a terrific way of looking at how science progresses. There’s much ballyhoo these days about which types of stem cells are best, with those opposing the use of embryonic stem cells saying that so far those cells have produced no cures. This is true, but there was a time when you could say that construction workers had yet to build a complete skyscraper yet now they are commonplace.

The building image also works when you think about how the branches of stem cell science intertwine. Lessons learned on the embryonic stem cell building directly resulted in science that led to reprogrammed iPS cells. Those iPS cells are now producing fascinating insights into how disease conditions play out in individual cells. The same is true for adult stem cell and cancer stem cell research, all of which benefit from and contribute to embryonic stem cell progress.

When you look at CIRM funding as the construction site, we have apprentices learning the ropes (our stem cell research training programs), people developing new and better ways of making the bricks and mortar, and senior people climbing high in the sky to lay down the latest bricks. Together, we’re building not just one building, but a village made of many different types of stem cell bricks.

Kessler has more to say about stem cell research, including this comment about the controversy over human embryonic stem cell research. I appreciate his balanced approach that recognizes both sides of the controversy: He writes, “People oppose it for a host of reasons. Some having to do with religion, with not understanding what it actually entails, or having to do with a dislike of science in general.”

He then provides his personal view:

There are at least a half million frozen blastocysts sitting in in vitro fertilization centers. They will either sit in liquid nitrogen where they will eventually die, or if no one wants to pay to store them, they will get thrown into the trash. I always try to make the point that I find it hard to believe that it is morally or ethically superior to throw them in the trash rather than allow scientists to use them to try to cure a disease.

And this, about the difference between iPS and embryonic stem cells:

I’m sometimes asked, ‘Why not just work with IPS cells and everybody will be happy?’ The IPS cell is not absolutely identical to the human embryonic stem cell. There are some very, very clear differences. I think the human embryonic stem cell is the gold standard. That’s the cell that we have to measure these against. We have to continue working with both kinds of cells.

I highly recommend giving the article a read.

– A.A.