One of the Holy Grails of Medicine: Genetic Surgery (in Mice for Now)


By flipping just three molecular switches a team of Harvard University biologists led by Douglas Melton have transformed common pancreatic cells inside living diabetic mice into insulin-producing beta cells. This was achieved by using genetically engineered viruses to ferry three crucial genes into the cells that were transformed.

As the Washington Post reports:

The experiments, detailed online yesterday in the journal Nature, raise the prospect that patients suffering from not only diabetes but also heart disease, strokes and many other ailments could eventually have some of their cells reprogrammed to cure their afflictions without the need for drugs, transplants or other therapies…

Although the experiment involved mice, Melton and other researchers were optimistic that the approach would work in people…

Melton has already started experimenting with human cells in the laboratory and hopes that within a year he can start planning the first studies involving people with diabetes. "I would say within five years, we could be ready to start human trials," Melton said…

The research is the latest development in the explosive field of regenerative medicine, which seeks to create replacement tissues and body parts tailored to patients. That objective appeared within reach after scientists discovered stem cells. But stem cell research has been hampered by objections from President Bush and others who believe that the earliest stages of human life have moral standing.

[Interim Executive Director, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Richard] Doerflinger argued that the discovery was the latest evidence that research involving human embryos is no longer necessary. "This adds to the large and growing list of studies helping to make embryonic stem cells irrelevant to medical progress," Doerflinger wrote in an e-mail.

But other researchers disputed that, saying it remains unclear which approach will ultimately prove most useful.

"Embryonic stem cells offer a unique window in human disease and remain a key to the long-term progress of regenerative medicine," Melton said.

This research is potentially great news. As stem cell researcher Robert Lanza tells the Post:

"One day, this may allow the doctor to replace the scalpel with a sort of genetic surgery. If this can be perfected, it would represent one of the holy grails of medicine."

However, one of the goals of stem cell research is not only to repair damaged cells and tissues, but also to rejuvenate aging cells and tissues. Japanese and American researchers last year reported a breakthrough in producing induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells by adding four genes that pushed old differentiated cells back to an embryonic state. It's very early days yet for this kind of research, but it may be necessary for an iPS transformation to achieve rejuvenation. Or maybe not–in June, Irina Conboy, a researcher at the Berkeley stem cell center rejuvenated old muscle using RNA interference to disable a molecular pathway (an "aging pathway") that tells adult stem cells to stop dividing. One caution—perhaps the biggest barrier to rapid progress in stem cell research is how to prevent some transformed cells from turning cancerous.

Whole Post article here.

Some of my thoughts on the genetics of ensoulment are here.