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.