The stem cell debate rages on. Many states and countries outright ban stem cell research because of how stem cells are harvested. What if we were able to engineer our own (partially) synthetic cells for research purposes? Surely this would alleviate ethical concerns surrounding stem cell research. A Madison based company called Cellular Dynamics are pushing the boundaries of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS) research to the limits to bring them into the limelight and dissolving the controversy that springs forth from concerns related to harvesting these types of cells from a human foetus. Sounds like an easy fix? Well, to some extent yes.
Induced pluripotent stem cells start out as cells harvested from adults. The cells are then introduced to certain genes that are generally only found active in embryos. These cells can do exactly the same things as what a regular stem cell that has been harvest from an evolving human foetus. The beauty of iPS cells is that they are not only useful for treating disease or injury but are also excellent test cells for tracking the progress of a disease on a molecular level. At the moment, Cellular Dynamics are creating iPS cells that are transformed into heart muscle cells to pharmaceutical companies that wish to have an untainted test bed to test the reaction of drugs to human body tissue.
Cellular Dynamics are currently developing brain and liver cells to enable a greater range of cells to test drugs on. There is no telling how far the technology can progress as a means of testing and treatment on a wider scale however. These cells can be developed from people that come from a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds as well – this gives researchers the opportunity to test how cells react depending on the genetic makeup of individuals from different backgrounds.