Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Skin transformed into stem cells

This just in: Skin cells have been tweaked to behave like stem cells in the lab. (click here for the story from the BBC site)

Translation: Researchers have cajoled normal skin cells to behave as if they were in an embryonic stage - reproducing in such a way that they can produce any kind of tissue - rather than just more skin cells.

Further (and very crude) translation: If you want to grow some tissue in the lab - even an ear and other whole organs potentially - you do not have to 'harvest' the stem cells from human embryos which is what is being done currently.

I find myself increasingly distanced from my first love of biology. We were speaking around the table this evening, and Sheba and I went backwards year by year, telling one memorable event from each year of our schooling.

For me standard 8 in the Deutsche Schule Bombay was turned upside down by Mr. Heuser from Hoechst. A part-time teacher and full time researcher in their animal serum / vaccine programme, he threw out the biology text book we had, and started lecturing to us - college style - from his own notes. The mysteries of the cell opened up, and then even more excitingly - the amazing twists and turns of the DNA. All along the good Dr. Heuser challenged us to be sharp and to tell him what we knew.

Heady stuff. It took me deep into bio - which lasted all the way up the mountain of Mussoorie (hats of to PM Dass) and then over to the cornfields of Indiana (where I was subverted by the radical botanist/succession ecologist duo of Rothrock and Squiers) and finally over to the grimy brownstones of New Haven (where the biological ebbed into the social/ anthropological/ epidemiological).

Anyway, from a disgruntled distance the main driving force behind all the breathlessness around stem cells etc. seems to be the mighty buck.

The whole question of ethics is treated as a slightly embarrassing side-show. Since there now seems to be an opportunity to tweak cells into behaving like stem-cells without killing unborn and hardly formed humans - well, you can almost feel the sighs of relief emenating from various sources. "Whew - enough of those luddites"

Point is that we are still left with the multiple questions of what is actually going on. What are we moving towards in using these various genetic technologies.

Take a look at the following diagramme (harvested without permission from the BBC site):

Nice and simple isn't it?

The neat drawing. The classic petri dish. The helpful arrows. All tidied up. Exhibit B is just the same as A - but without the 'ethical' problem of being embryonic in origin. Hooray.


Where is the overall direction of each little lab going? What invisible guiding hand moves the broad contours of research? Governments don't seem to have much say. Peers? Patentability? Profits? Probably the latter two mostly.

And yet we still have so many totally solvable issues going on all around us.

Just the basic issue of toilets for example. We know what should be done. There are even programmes in the government etc. But still we put up with so much filth. And even in states where there are 'many toilets' - like in Kerala - most are poorly situated with no thought about the ground water etc.

Medically we know that intestinal parasites eat up about 1/3 of the food we eat as Indians. Think about that. Get rid of the bugs / worms inside and we raise real food production by 33%!

Socially, we know that alcohol abuse is a part and parcel of most of our societies. And yet we continue to tolerate our cricket stars and cine artistes promoting surrogate advertising for booze and cancer sticks.

The list goes on - and I will stop here.

So much can be done. And will be one day.

I want my beautiful biology back!

p.s. We are helping to organise a one-day conference for Christian Doctors called: Following the Master Physician's Heart: Excellence and Ethics in Medical Practice Today on Jan 26th 08. For more details click: here.

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