American Elephants

The Nobel Prize Awarded for Laying the Foundation for Regenerative Medicine by The Elephant's Child

Two scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday, and have helped to lay the foundation for regenerative medicine. They are Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan, and John B. Gurdon of the University of Cambridge in England. What is being called regenerative medicine is the idea of rebuilding the body with stem-cells generated from its own cells.

Dr, Gurdon, above on the right, was the first to clone an animal, a frog, in 1962. His work was at first greeted skeptically, because it contradicted the accepted dogma that adult cells are irrevocably assigned to their specific functions and cannot assume new ones. His technique was to extract the cell nucleus, containing the frog’s DNA, from a mature intestinal cell and insert the nucleus into a frog egg whose own nucleus had been removed. The egg was able to reprogram the introduced nucleus and direct its genes to switch from the duties of an intestinal cell to those appropriate to a developing egg. How this happened had to wait 44 years while molecular biologists gained a better understanding of genes and their controlling agents.

Dr. Yamanaka, above on the left,  discovered in 2006 that the reprogramming can be accomplished by just four specific gene control agents in the egg. The agents, known as transcription factors, are proteins made by master genes to regulate other genes.  By injecting the four agents into an adult cell, Dr. Yamanaka showed that he could walk the cell back to its primitive or stem cell form. Stem cells generated by this method are known as induced pluripotent cells, or iPS cells, which can then be made to mature into any type of adult cell in the body.

James Thompson isolated embryonic stem cells back in 1998, There was a prompt outcry from pro-life advocates, who saw it as a slippery slope into human cloning. Political liberals believed that religious believers must be discredited before they were able to undo freedom for abortion. Then you had the money part — trillions of dollars in research grants, biotech companies stock dividends. The people who rejected embryonic research didn’t want cloned embryos created and killed for stem cells, and what John Kerry denounced as a “ban on stem-cell research” was at the center of the attack. There was, of course, no such ban.  George Bush in August of 2001, allowed federal funds to be used for embryonic stem-cells, but only with existing lines of cells.

Private companies could experiment as they wished, State governments could fund what they chose. California, always ready to spend money, authorized $3 billion worth of bonds specifically for embryonic stem-cell research not funded by the federal government.

It became an article of faith among liberals that heartless Republicans were blocking miraculous cures, amazing therapies and fabulous healings. Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards stood up in 2004, pointed at the paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, and proclaimed that a vote for the Democrats would mean that people like Reeve “are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.” Well, what delicious ammunition to use against the Republicans — those backward, bigoted pro-life people —want to keep people in their wheelchairs.

That summer, Ron McKay from the National Institute of Health, admitted that he and his fellow scientists had failed to correct the media’s false reports about the promise of stem-cells — but that was all right because ordinary people “need a fairy tale.” They require need a fairytale.” a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”

As late as January 2007,  Senator Arlen Spector proclaimed, “It is scandalous that eight years have passed since we have known about stem-cell research and the potential to conquer all known maladies, and federal funds have not been available for the research.” At that same time, Dr. Yamanaka was working with mice to show that fully pluripotent stem-cells could be created directly from adult cells. Many of the nation’s most prominent stem-cell researchers openly joined one side of a partisan political debate.

Celebrities, Scientists, Big Money, Politicians, Abortion Activists, Media, Atheists, the Religious, and poor ordinary people who “need a fairy tale, “makes for a heady mix. Politics corrupted the science, but the scientists aided the corruption.

On March 9, 2009, President Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, and if I remember correctly (I am fallible) he said researchers had twenty people waiting for stem cell transplants to help them to walk again.  The twenty people were never heard from again. Geron Corporation was the company doing the first government-approved test of embryonic stem cell therapy.Their first-ever human trial using an embryonic stem-cell derived product for spinal cord injury made international headlines. But they have abandoned the field entirely eliminating 66 full-time jobs.  No interest from venture capitalists.

So congratulations to the two Nobel Prize winners. The work resulting from their discoveries proceeds with great success with adult stem cells. We posted this story about a great early success with adult stem cells taken from a burn victim’s own skin, in February of 2011. We hear a lot about the politics, but not enough about the progress with real patients. This is not a fairy tale, but real progress that will someday reach our local hospitals, if health care does not remain under bureaucratic control by the government. Ignore the initial picture on the video, and watch the whole thing.


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