Kudos to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for its three-part series on how scientists around the world raced time and each other to be the first to publish the successful reprogramming of ordinary human cells to become pluripotent cells which are like embryonic stem cells. No embryos were destroyed in the process.
As one who has followed, written and spoken extensively on stem cells for the past eight years, I found the series absolutely fascinating! Even the titles of the articles are thrilling:
“Rivals race to turn back a cell’s clock”
“Scientists begin digging for genetic triggers”
“Holy Grail of stem cell research within reach”
Calling this research the Holy Grail is mind boggling. And yet, that’s what it could very well be when applied to human patients sometime in the future. Ethical and practical research working seamlessly to enhance treatment for patients with a myriad of conditions and the possibility of cures — the Holy Grail indeed.
The winners in the race to the finish which occurred in November 2007 were James Thomson and Junying Yu of UW-Madison and Shinya Yamanaka and Kazutoshi Takahashi of Japan. Scientists at other American research facilities and in other countries were also racing to be first. As described in the series, the competition was secretive and fierce as there is little prestige for coming in second or third.
The most interesting revelation is that the task was believed by virtually everyone to be next to impossible. Yet, the solution turned out to be so simple scientists were concerned they had made a fatal error. Evidence of the simplicity is the replication of the reprogramming process which is occurring at rapid speed all over the world.
Why was this discovery so important when billions are being spent on embryonic stem cell research? The winners said it best:
Thomson on destroying the human embryo to obtain embryonic stem cells: “If you don’t find it at least a little bit creepy, you haven’t thought about it enough.”
Yamanaka on viewing embryos under a microscope: “The difference between my daughter and these tiny cells looked very small to me. I can imagine if we transplant this embryo, it may become just like my daughter, or I could destroy this and try to make human embryonic stem cells. “ Yamanaka vowed to find another way.
For a fascinating must-read, the full series can be found here.