Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The exciting world of ethical stem cell research

I read this article in Australia's The Age, and I was very excited.

"The hope is … that if you have a baby diagnosed prenatally with a defect then you can take cells from the amniotic fluid and then expand those cells in large quantities and create the tissue or organ that is needed.

"You could turn the cells, for example, into liver cells … and have them ready for when the baby is born."

Professor Atala, a surgeon heading a team of about 150 transplantation surgeons and scientists at Wake Forest, said the technology could potentially work to cure "any abnormality that would not be lethal before a baby is born". And once scientists have established large enough banks of the placental and amniotic stem cells, the cells could also be used to create tissues and organs for the rest of us.

This is way better than embryonic stem cells. There are no ethical dilemmas raised, and an infinite source of these cells. There would be a low risk of organ rejection, because the baby is using his own cells.

I am also excited because this has the potential of reducing the number of abortions. If a parent knows that there is a chance of repairing a defective organ, he might vote against abortion.

And once they have a critical mass of cells:

With a stem cell bank of 100,000 specimens, scientists could create tissues that could genetically match 99% of the US population, Professor Atala said.

Consider the implications: I bet we could "pre-make" organs, the way we "pre-make" hamburgers at McDonald's, at least the ones that are often transplanted, like kidneys. Then there's always one ready to order.

And check out the technique used to make tissue:

Professor Atala and his team use a series of methods to create the stem-cell organs including using a modified ink-jet printer and a technique akin to baking.

"We take the ink cartridge (of an inkjet printer) and instead of filling it with ink, we fill it with cells and modify the printer so instead of putting paper through it, it just prints off layer after layer of the tissue," Professor Atala says, explaining how the team has "printed" a piece of bone from amniotic stem cells.

The "baking technique" involves gathering large quantities of cells, layering them on top of one another and then placing them in a three dimensional mould in an incubator for the organ to grow.

It's like something out of Star Trek.

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