An article in the New York Times explains the risky business of scientific research, where “there are far fewer hits than misses” when it comes to research grants ever paying off. One of the biggest offenders? Embryonic stem cell research.
Stem cell researchers have created an illusion of progress by claiming regular advances in the 12 years since human embryonic stem cells were first developed. But a notable fraction of these claims have turned out to be wrong or fraudulent, and many others have amounted to yet another new way of getting to square one by finding better methods of deriving human embryonic stem cells.
The major advances in stem cell biology have come from molecular biologists who study transcription factors, the master control switches that govern the cell’s operations. The Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka showed that with a mere four of these factors, which he cleverly guessed, he could force an ordinary cell to walk back to embryonic state.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But the finding illustrates what stem cell research is really about. It’s not about therapies and quick cures, it’s about understanding the basic nature of human cells and what makes one type different from another even though all have the identical genome. In other words, it’s a basic research program with little likelihood of producing therapeutic gains in the near future. Stem cell scientists, while generally avoiding rash promises themselves, have allowed politicians to portray stem cells as a likely cure for all the major diseases.
What cures there have been so far, of course, have come from adult stem cell therapies, and as the article points out, the future appears to be in research like Yamanaka’s — manipulating regular cells to return to their embryonic state (rather than using embryonic cells to start). Hopefully the PR machine surrounding embryonic stem cell research will soon catch on.
(H/t reader Joe)