Stem cell research
Stem Cell Research
November 8, 2003
Stem Cell Research
Stem cells are located deep down in our bone marrow. They have the incredible ability of “generating an endless supply of red cells, white cells, and platelets”(1). They have been called the “Mother of all blood cells” due to their ability to regenerate the entire blood supply of a persons body. Just to think that this is possible is actually pretty incredible. The man who claims to be responsible for the discovery of this gem is a immunologist from Stanford University named Irving Weissman, and his collaborators at SyStemix, (a biotech company that he cofounded in 1988, located in Palo Alto, CA). He and his company are so confident about these cells, not only have they obtained a government patent on the process by which these specific cells are separated from other cells, they have also patented the cells themselves. They have even convinced Sandoz Ltd. (a giant Swiss drug-and-chemical company) to purchase 60 percent of the stock for SyStemix for a reported 392 million dollars.
Stem cells are very valuable for many reasons, some of which are as follows: by giving patients the ability to make an entirely new supply of blood, they make it possible for the immune system to regenerate itself. In doing this, it could feasibly allow medical breakthroughs for treating diseases like cancer and AIDS. There is much controversy over who actually should have taken credit for the discovery of stem cells. Back in the 1960’s James Till and Ernest McCulloch (from the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto ) discovered that after mice were injected with bone marrow cells their spleens developed “nodules” on them, and, upon studying these nodules they noticed that they were loaded with white and red blood cells. They also discovered that, additionally, these cells were able to reproduce themselves. These men said that, “All blood cells arise from a few hematopoietic stem cells, which are hidden away in bone marrow”(2). On the average, these cells produce an ounce of new blood (260 billion new cells) every day. Weissman was studying medicine at Stanford when the before mentioned men developed their theory, and it fascinated him. He decided to pursue the study and see where he could go with it. He soon began to study white cells backwards, from maturity to early cells. At the same time, the rest of the researcher were discovering the same thing.
One man, in particular, Jan Visser, developed a strategy for separating these stem cells from other cells in blood. He fine tuned his strategy by making small changes in what he was doing, which broke down the number of cells to smaller and smaller groups, until finally, he narrowed it down and he figured that there is approximately one stem cell per 10,000 cells. Visser had his original results published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine in 1984, and four years later, Weissman announced in the journal Science that he and his colleagues had found the mouse’s stem cell. It was Weissman’s article that drew headlines, while Visser’s only drew polite praise. Visser notes ironically, The Journal of Experimental medicine is considered scientifically one of the best journals. Science is more popular.
It was the Weissman team that took a much more narrow approach to separating the cells, they used a variety of monoclonal antibodies, each with a specific ability to single out certain proteins on certain cells. In my opinion, this is how science works. Science is based on someone figuring something out, and another person comes along later and makes it better. It is called advancement. The problem with what Weissman did, was that he claimed all responsibility for discovering stem cells and separating cells and gave no credit to Visser or anyone else who had made huge leaps forward with the advancement of stem cell research. Since being called on doing that, it has been noted that Weissman now acknowledges Vissers work. Weissman claims to have been so wrapped up in his own research that he didn’t know that Visser had done so much with stem cell separation. He likened it to what I think a child might say, “I stopped reading the literature. I didn’t want to be distracted by what other people were doing, or spoil the fun of discovery. I use that as an excuse. It’s a bad thing to admit this, I know”(4). I think that was a lousy thing to do, especially since he is now a multi-millionaire for stealing the glory of another man. I think that is a crime. The funny thing is that, although, Visser was sorry for himself at first, he credits Weissman for making stem cell research known world-wide. He said that it was actually good for him and gave him a lot of attention. Weissman’s accomplishment was more than just a purification of cells, like Visser’s, it was really informative.
McCulloch was even more impressed and praised Weissman strongly. He called his work “seminal”, and that the application to man was just one step beyond what he did with the mouse. Since other researchers were finding the same cells, but using different methods, Weissman didn’t get the attention he wanted, so it took it a step further and applied for a patent, not only for their method for finding the stem cells, but for the stem cell itself. They were granted the patent. They were the proud owners of a living human cell. Weissman defends his decision to get the patent by explaining that people with money will not invest in something that is not patented. He is right, really. I don’t think that if I had money to invest in something, I wouldn’t do it either.
This article is quite old, I noticed it was from 1995, almost 9 years ago, and I can’t believe how much further technology has taken us. There have been many advancements in the stem cell study. It is an even bigger controversy now, however. Scientists have found that the highest concentration of stem cells in a persons body comes from their umbilical cord after they are born. They want to create embryo’s and use the stem cells from them to help someone else. To me, this is like the cloning issue. I don’t think that we should be cloning people pretty much for spare parts like livers, kidneys, etc. It would be like a factory of torso’s. It would be gruesome to go into a place that is full of partial bodies, with no heads or souls, and go harvest organs when the time or need arises. That is just too much. The article was pretty informative, and I did learn many things that I did not know previously.
Redetsky, Peter. “The Mother of All Blood Cells”.
Discover Magazine March 1995: 1-7