Non-Embryonic Stem Cells, Part 1: The Dawning of a New Era of Hope

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Philip Bethge, April 05, 2013 (Photo Gallery).

Ethical worries have slowed medical research into applications for stem cells. But scientists like Robert Lanza have developed less controversial ways to derive stem cells from normal body cells rather than embryos and are already launching the first clinical trials.

Stem cell researcher Robert Lanza hopes to save thousands of lives — and for a long time this caused him to fear for his own … //

… The Making of a Rebel Scientist:  

Lanza is a slender man with short hair that stands on end, and he speaks so quickly that his sentences tend to be cut off. His laboratory is located in an ugly commercial building on the outskirts of Marlborough. It’s hard to imagine that a medical revolution is brewing in this dreary setting. The petri dishes, test tubes and steel containers filled with liquid nitrogen are teeming with human cells. The ACT “Master Cell Bank” cost $1 million (€770,000), says Lanza, “but these things grow like weeds once a stem cell line has been established.”

The cell factory is currently producing batches of iPS blood platelets. Emergency wards have a huge demand for these helpers in the body’s natural clotting mechanism. Lanza explains that a lack of these elements can have dramatic consequences: His sister was seriously injured during an accident. The hospital didn’t have enough blood platelet concentrate. “She bled to death,” he says.

Lanza wants to prevent something like that from ever happening again. His team has found ways to cultivate an “unlimited supply” of the cells. When frozen, he says, they can be kept for months. He is currently negotiating the final details of the planned study with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “We don’t need any embryos to make iPS,” Lanza says with pride. “If this type of stem cell works,” he adds, “the whole ethical controversy will be eliminated.”

Venturing to start clinical trials now is seen as a bold step. But Lanza is used to falling out of line. Even back when he was a schoolboy — just after the genetic code had been deciphered — he decided to alter the genetic makeup of a white chicken to make it black. “So I went to my teacher and told him that I was going to change the genetic makeup of the birds,” Lanza recounts. “He said: ‘Lanza, you’re going to go to hell.’”

This merely encouraged the 13-year-old. He cobbled together some laboratory equipment. To gain support for his experiment, the youngster boarded a bus in his hometown of Stoughton, close to Boston, and went “looking for a Harvard professor,” as he explains with a grin. At first, his journey appeared to end at the closed gates of Harvard Medical School. But Lanza soon saw “a short, balding guy” coming across the parking lot. “He was wearing khaki pants and had a bunch of keys,” he says. “I thought he was the janitor.” The boy had no idea that this was Stephen Kuffler, one of the most famous neurophysiologists of his time.

Kuffler played along: He opened the door for Lanza, allowed the boy to explain to him how genetics worked, and pushed him up the stairs. This opened up a new universe for the up-and-coming scientist. He repeated his chicken experiment and landed his first publication in Nature.

The Dawning of a New Medical Era: … //

… Obstacles Along the Way:

When Lanza harkens back to those days, he becomes more serious. Although the ACT embryos had only grown to tiny balls consisting of six cells, for anti-abortion activists and pro-lifers the researcher was now the Antichrist incarnate.

“I remember that I went down to Tennessee, to the Bible country, and I went to one of those churches to explain what we were really doing. As I went through the door with the minister, a guy got up and shouted “Murderer! Murderer!” Lanza hired a bodyguard.

In the wake of the media coup, ACT started to founder. Investors withdrew from the company, and with George W. Bush in the White House, public funding for stem cell research dried up. “We went through multiple times where we lost the whole team,” says Lanza, who notes that they even had their phone disconnected for a while. “Rather than curing diseases, we were trying to resolve theological problems,” Lanza says bitterly. “And that’s not what I studied medicine for.”
Talking about the issue has slowly made the doctor furious and, almost imperceptibly, his tone of voice is becoming shriller. Another story has to be told, that of a policeman standing in front of the door one day. Lanza was afraid that he would be arrested. But no: “He came into my office and said that he had a child who was slowly going blind,” the physician recalls. “He said that he had heard of these cells that could supposedly help, and I said: ‘Yes, I have these cells in a freezer, but I don’t have the $20,000 to test them on mice.’”

Lanza had to turn the man away. It pains him to this day. “I don’t want to know how many people went blind because we lost our public funding,” he says angrily. “Nobody gets it; they say everything is fine; no, it’s not fine!”
(full text).

Part 2: Changes in the Political Environment and Scientific Advances.

Links:

Pictures: Magic in the Lab, how stem cells help healing: photo 1, photo 2.

Bird Jams: Long Winter Sends Migratory Flocks into Tailspin, on Spiegel nline International, April 03, 2013; (Photo Gallery): Migratory Birds Struggle with Wintry Spring.

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