It is unclear at exactly what point the phrase “stem cell” entered the vernacular, one of very few scientific terms that achieve the status of, say, DNA in not requiring a detailed explanation every time it is written down or spoken.
Whether or not you know exactly what they are or what they do, stem cells imply something very specific: In them is invested the next generation of medicine, revolutionary treatments for everything from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s. On the horizon, there is also the hope of growing genetically matched tissue (even whole organs) to replace anything that has been damaged by disease or accident.
But perhaps the reason stem cells managed to lodge themselves so deep in the public psyche was not just because of their awesome scientific potential, or their ability to turn into the treatments of the future. Perhaps it was politics. For years, stem cells dominated all other science stories in newspaper headlines because they framed an ethical conundrum — to get to the most versatile stem cells meant destroying human embryos.
Research on stem cells became a political football, leading to delays in funding for scientists, particularly in the US. Not that the work itself was straightforward — the process of extracting stem cells from embryos is difficult and there is a very limited supply of material. Inevitable disappointment followed the years of headlines — where were the promised treatments? Was it all over-hyped?
For Paul Fairchild, co-director of the newly founded Oxford Stem Cell Institute, disappointment is just not on the agenda. Over a coffee in the University of Oxford’s pathology department, where he is a professor, he explains his vision for the coming, post-hype decade of stem cell science.
“It’s an exciting time in stem cell biology for a host of reasons,” he says. “We’ve entered a whole new phase in the stem cell field, which has been held up enormously by ethical issues for over a decade.”
Key to this is the discovery, in the past few years, of a way to make stem cells that do not require the destruction of embryos. In one move, these induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells remove the ethical roadblocks faced by embryonic stem cells and, because they are so much easier to make, give scientists an inexhaustible supply of material, bringing them ever closer to those hoped-for treatments.
Fairchild says that iPS technology will “completely revolutionize the whole of medicine this century.” The talk is matched by action: The Oxford Stem Cell Institute is a recognition of the importance of the work ahead, a collaboration that brings together 37 laboratories across 17 departments at the university.
“It’s an attempt to try and bring all of the work in stem cell biology under one umbrella organization to allow people to collaborate more effectively,” Fairchild says.
Stem cells are the body’s master cells, the raw material from which we are built. Unlike normal body cells, they can reproduce an indefinite number of times and, when prodded in the right way, can turn themselves into any type of cell in the body. The most versatile stem cells are those found in the embryo at just a few days old — this ball of a few dozen embryonic stem (ES) cells eventually goes on to form everything that makes up a person.
In 1998, James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that he had isolated human ES cells in the lab. Finally, these powerful cells were within the grasp of scientists to experiment with, understand and develop into fixes for the things that go wrong.