The Speculist: Horse / Barn Door or Something Even More Unexpected


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Horse / Barn Door or Something Even More Unexpected

it's the biggest science news of the year, right?


WASHINGTON -- Before an East Room audience of doctors, scientists, lawmakers and religious leaders President Obama signed an executive order Monday lifting the ban on federal funding for stem cell research, fulfilling a promise he made on the campaign trail.

The order overturns the Bush policy that said no government money could be used for research on stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001.

"Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident," Obama said. "They result from painstaking and costly research, from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit, and from a government willing to support that work."

This is great news. The previously imposed limits on stem cell research were silly and arbitrary, and we are well rid of them. However, it is interesting that this story is getting all the press coverage while at the same time we see something like this occurring:

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Take a Big Step Towards Clinical Applications

This week, researchers from Canada and Scotland made a major advancement in the field of stem cell biology. They discovered a method to successfully reprogram somatic cells into stem cells without the use of viruses.

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are a type of stem cells derived from adult somatic cells by forcing expression of genes shown to sufficiently reprogram somatic cells into stem cells. iPSCs have been shown to possess key characteristics of embryonic stem cells (ESCs), the most important of which is the ability to give rise to cells of all three germ layers. iPSCs are an ideal source of stem cells because they circumvent the need for human embryos to generate stem cells. Additionally, because they can be generated from one’s own somatic cells which are readily available, iPSCs can be used for patient-specific therapies, thereby reducing the risk of immune rejection.

President Obama may have just closed the barn door after the horses got out. Is there any doubt that, once we have a safe and reliable means of producing them, induced pluripotent cells from the patient's own body will be the lynchpin of future stem-cell therapies? Opening up all those post-2001 lines of stem cells for research is a terrific thing, but this research potentially makes the stem cells from every human genome on the planet -- including yours and mine -- available for both research and treatment.

Moreover, this approach would have been doable under the just-removed restrictions.

Here's a question to ponder. What role did those restrictions play in inducing some researchers to begin working on iPSCs? Seeing as the work described here comes from Canada and the UK, it would be difficult to draw a direct line. But it would be, to say the very least, ironic if the much-hated stem cell research funding ban actually played a positive role in moving us towards a better solution.

There must be other examples of this sort of thing in the history of science and technology -- arbitrary and capricious limitations to progress leading to workarounds that are superior to what might have been accomplished otherwise. It certainly says something for the resilience of the process of inquiry.


We may need to come up with a better metaphor than "closing the barn door after the horse got out."

When a horse gets out that's a bad thing. Here, both things - the lifting of the ban, and the development of induced pluripotent cell technology - are good things.

This is my friends throwing me a surprise birthday party not realizing my birthday was a week before and that I'd already had a party. Yeah! Two birthday parties.

Not exactly pithy though.

Psst. You have to figure out how fetal stem cells work to reverse engineer adult somatic cells into true pluripotent ones. As is, all the iPSCs, when implanted in animals kinda have a tendency to cause cancer. Which has given us some insights into cancer, which is good, but not so much with the regeneration thing.

A more apt analogy is: "Why'd you go and turn the light on, I found all this cool stuff in the dark!"

A more apt analogy is: "Why'd you go and turn the light on, I found all this cool stuff in the dark!"

Hey, I think that's better than the birthday party thing!

Yes it is.

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