Stem cells to the left of them, stem cells to the right of them..

This has truly been a month for Stem Cells so far. For me, this meant a collection of news headlines slowly piling up in my in-box waiting for an opportune moment when they would be blogged about. But watching a harried Krishnan Gurumurthy interview a chap from University College Hospital on Channel 4’s mid-day news, about the making of very immature (‘primitive’) sperm cells from stem cells isolated from bone marrow, as I gobbled my lunch, I realised this was that opportune moment.

Krishnan looked particularly worried as he asked about the possibility that sperm cells could even be created using women’s bone marrow, but although highly funny to watch, mentioning this is probably highly irrelevant. He is however not alone, as this Belfast News headline suggests that there might be ‘the prospect of all-female conception’ and the Telegraph suggesting that ‘Women may be able to grow own sperm’.

Last week, British scientists reported that they had successfully grown part of a heart valve from stem cells for the first time. And a week later, results from a very small study by Brazilian and American scientists were announced. In the study, a treatment, that included stem cell transplantation, induced prolonged insulin independence in patients with newly diagnosed type 1 diabetes. Although plenty of cautionary notes about false hope were sounded by those in the know, it nonetheless caused much excitement especially since Type 1 diabetes is now showing up in children under 5 years of age.

Then, this Friday the 13th, news emerges that there has been success in producing sperm cells from stem cells isolated from the bone marrow of healthy male volunteers. The research team expresses hope of understanding how sperm is created, whereas in other fora, including Channel 4 news, the possibility of this being another solution to fertility problems is being discussed.

The discussion inevitably slips into the possibility of creation of human embryos and human clones, as the ultimate solution to fertility problems. However reproductive cloning is not legally allowed in the UK (more information on stem cell regulation here). Therapeutic cloning however can be done and has been done in the UK, although the clinical translation of such research is yet to be realised and will probably not be here for several foreseeable years.

This brings us squarely to the US Senate’s overwhelming defiance of the US President’s threat of a second veto, to pass a bill easing restrictions on research on embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes. A Democrat senator referred to this as a “noble cause” while a Republican Senator called it the use of “federal money, indirectly or directly, to destroy embryos'”.

Without being facetious about this issue of serious concern to people of various religious and political persuasions, I should also draw attention to another story this week, where some 6 embryos are definitely being destroyed, and so far no religious leaders in the UK have weighed in on the matter.

For those, who are ok with IVF yet squeamish about stem cell research, it is worth clarifying that not all stem cells are embryonic in origin. Further here is some sobering information about what happens to extra embryos that are routinely created during IVF. In the UK, a survey from a few years ago suggests that couples are willing to donate those extra embryos for stem cell research. For more on the main issues in embryonic stem cell research, click here for a presentation from the Oxford Uehiro Centre of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford.

It is clear that the UK and the US are separated by more than the Atlantic when it comes to stem cell research for therapeutic purposes. The debate is not over; indeed it has hardly begun.

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