It might just be a coincidence - coincidences happen, after all.
But they don't happen in science (the process thereof, not the natural world it studies, wherein coincidences happen nearly exactly as often as one would expect) nearly as often as you'd think. And it's even rarer they happen in politics - and really, science funding is just politics without a dress code.
Still, it might just be a coincidence that three days after a certain transition of power within a certain world superpower, the Food and Drug Administration of that same superpower has given a stem-cell research group the green light to conduct human trials
. This is pretty damn exciting for this little science geek, and despite being separate from the federal government and any direct control by the USA's brand new Lord High Superman, is right up there with the Guantanamo closure and abolition of the Global Gag Rule in my list of Things That Have Made Me Happy this week.
Stem cells get one Hell of a lot of press coverage, and the general impression of what they are is more or less correct: they're 'blank slate' cells, able to both reproduce themselves and to differentiate into any of the myriad specialist cells that make up multicellular organisms. If one imagines the complex structure of the eukaryote body being like a Lego construction, stem cells aren't even regular 6x6 bricks: they're the molten plastic from which all the bricks are moulded. While such cells are present in adult organisms, those grown from embryos are the most versatile, being truly pluripotent
- having the potential to become any type of cell under the right conditions. Unlike adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells are also immortal
; they divide endlessly in culture from which smaller samples can be taken. However, thanks to 'controversy' that surrounds the use of cells taken with full and informed parental permission from surplus embryos from I.V.F. treatments, that would otherwise be destroyed, the sciencephobes like to scream bloody murder every time anyone attempts to use them.
In 2001, Bush's government restricted federal funding for human Embryonic Stem Cell (hESC) research onto that conducted on the 60 lines that were already in place by that time; essentially preventing the creation of any more lines. This was consistent with the pro-life views that creating lines means killing humans, and while it doesn't prevent any research on those existing lines, there are apparently only 20 lines still usable for research and some of those are 'problematic' (see the BBC news article
). It also helped reinforce this view and taint all hESC research with the 'controversy' label, allowing the Daily Mail to get their knickers twisted up every time it's mentioned.
These upcoming human trials will build on the successful trials with rats (Kierstead et al
, 2005, Journal of Neuroscience
(19)) in which animals with spinal injuries (artificially created lesions) were shown to recover locomotion after treatment. The loss of movement with the relevant injuries isn't caused through severing of the nerve cells, but a loss of the myelin sheath that covers the axon of each neuron and acts like the plastic insulator around an electric cable (exactly like, as it happens: neurological information is transmitted through electrical impulses).
Within the Central Nervous system, myelin is created not by Schwann cells, as in this diagram, but by other specialist cells: Oligodendrocytes. The destruction of these that leads to demyelination and the loss of movement in some spinal injury sufferers. Human Embryonic Stem Cells were used from which to derive Oligodendrocyte Progenitor cells
- precursors to the myelin producing oligodendrites. This culture - known as GRNOPC1; an easy enough abbreviation to interpret: GRN for Geron, the research company, OPC for Oligodendrocyte Progenitor Cell, 1 for the batch number - injected into the rats a short time after the injury, showed an increase in remyelination and an improvement in motor function.
And now, the go ahead has been given by the FDA to continue with human trials. I'm no neuroscientist - I just live with one - nor a medical doctor, so I can only guess at the size of this step in nerve treatment, but the ongoing arguments around the ethics of stem cells continually interests and frustrates me; this is a vitally important area of research for all sorts of disease and injury treatments, has the potential to save countless lives and improve the quality of even more, and for years it's been stigmatised because it uses material derived from the waste product of a legal procedure that involves something that may or may not potentially possibly be a human. According to some.
Of course, it might be a coincidence that the human study was given the go-ahead just days after the inauguration. But if you believed that, you'd probably also believe that it was coincidence it occurred just weeks before the most famous spinal injury sufferer in comics was rumoured to regain the use of her legs in a DC miniseries
. Apparently, however, some people think the world doesn't revolve around superheroes.[Much of the information about Stem cells in this post came from Geron. See also the BBC News page on the study go ahead.]