Monday, November 29, 2010

Ah yes - the other 'ESC' treatment!!

After Geron Corp and the non-ESC non-treatment trial in spine inury, I see that Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) has made its own bid for five minutes of fame, this time with a rare form of macular degeneration (Stargardt's macular dystrophy). Five minutes is all it takes for intelligent people to ask the same questions I posed re Geron:

1. Given that we can do all this with adult stem cells (for example, see HERE) why mess with embryos (with their inherent problems of tumours, and immune supression, let alone the ethical ugliness)?

2. Even if you really really really want to use tumorigenic pluripotent stem cells, why not spare the patient the need for immune suppressant drugs and use iPS cells (for example, see HERE) as a source of the transplatable cells - because they at least match the patient?

What mug would turn away from the obvious advantages using safe, genetically perfect ASCs and instead use dangerous pluripotent cells? And if only the latter "will do", what mug would use 'foreign' ESCells when he could use genetically matched iPS cells? For as the old song goes: "Anything 'e' can do, 'i' can do better" especially when it comes to matching the patient's immune system.

Still, if all your company's resources and IP is tied up with embryos, and the FDA is fool enough to grant your reckless and unjustified experiment on human subjects, and your legal liability is sufficient - then it is understandable (although still unjustifiable) that you would proceed with ESC-derived cells.

Hype-alert: as with Geron so with ACT, not a single ESC will ever be injected into a patient (despite the breathless headlines in the media) because, of course, you can never do that. Likewise, this ACT trial is not a treatment: is is just a phase 1 safety trial to see what harm the ESC-derived cells might do to the subjects. So while it is understandable for the CEO to talk up the company's trial, it is not as he puts it "a game changer for the medical community". The only game changer will be when steady minds and smart investment finally expose this embryo-tinkering for the redundant stunt that it is. Then we can divert our energies to the two fertile fields of stem cell research: ASC for safe direct therapies and iPS for ethically uncontentious genetic research and drug development.

My review article on the Death of Cloning

For a glossy summary of why cloning is a blighted science, and why our Parliaments can and must remove the legislation that underpins cloning, here is a link to my peer-reviewed article in the latest edition of 'Viewpoint'. This is a public-issues journal put out by the Australian Christian Lobby, and features a pair of opposing opinions - in this case the other side was put by Professor Loane Skene, former Chair of the Lockhart Review Committee which recommended cloning to the Federal Government back in 2005.

To read her article, and all the other valuable material in the October edition of Viewpoint, please buy one, or a dozen and give them to friends for Christmas, via

As for my article, feel free to circulate - but mention Viewpoint as the source, thanks.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Turn skin cells to buckets of blood cells – and forget embryos

Something funny happened on the way to reprogramming a patient’s skin cell to an iPS cell. An astute observer at McMaster’s University, Canada, noticed that some of the cells did not fully reprogram, and the half-baked cell had that donut-look of a red blood cell. Now they have learned to control this partial reprogramming, and the McMaster’s news release yesterday tells the story:

Making blood from skin does not require the middle step of changing a skin stem cell into a pluripotent stem
Hamilton, ON (November 7, 2010) – In an important breakthrough, scientists at McMaster University have discovered how to make human blood from adult human skin.
The discovery, published in the prestigious science journal Nature today, could mean that in the foreseeable future people needing blood for surgery, cancer treatment or treatment of other blood conditions like anemia will be able to have blood created from a patch of their own skin to provide transfusions. Clinical trials could begin as soon as 2012.

Mick Bhatia, scientific director of McMaster’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute in the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, and his team of researchers have also shown that the conversion is direct. Making blood from skin does not require the middle step of changing a skin stem cell into a pluripotent stem cell that could make many other types of human cells, then turning it into a blood stem cell.

Samuel Weiss, professor and director, Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Calgary, said: “This groundbreaking work from Mick Bhatia’s lab is both fascinating and important. It heralds a new age by discovering a role for ‘directed differentiation’ in the treatment of cancers and other disorders of the blood and immune system.”

Yet the ABC cannot help itself. Reporting on such a compelling breakthrough using our own adult cells, it still has to perform a wanton genuflection to those embryonic wannabes. Having established that the Canadian technique does indeed produce human blood cells that exactly match the patient – the authentic pot of gold at the end of the stem cell rainbow - and does it without messing with eggs, embryos or cloning, ABC reporter Jennifer Macey still has to get the token wet-blanket scientist to say that “unlike embryonic stem cells, which can produce millions of new cells, it's still unclear whether the adult skin cells will be able to produce enough blood.”

Yeah, right – show us a single embryonic stem cell that can produce even a single red blood cell that matches even a single human patient. There is none. Zero, zip. To achieve such a cell you first have to successfully clone the patient into her twin embryo, extract the embryonic stem cells, and then differentiate those ESCs into a blood cell. What utter folly. What an insult to our intelligence, pretending such a futile embryonic pursuit deserves equal billing with direct reprogramming of adult cells. It is time for pro-cloning scientists to get over their wounded pride in backing a dud science, stop wasting our hard-earned tax dollars, and stop pretending to ABC journalists and others that cloning is anything but an expensive and offensive failure.

Meantime, let the magnificent work on the near-alchemy of ‘directed differentiation’ proceed apace.