Advances in Stem Cell Research
On April 3, 2008, the Boisi Center hosted a luncheon talk by prominent stem cell scientist Dr. Ole Isacson, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, principal faculty at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and director of the Center for Neuroregeneration Research at McLean Hospital. Isacson discussed the trajectory of his research and the ways in which ethical considerations have informed or determined research paths in the stem cell research community.
Tracing his interest in “seed” or stem cells from his graduate work in Sweden in the late 1980s, Isacson noted the long history of such research, from World War II era medics who treated soldiers’ wounds with skin grafts from pigs, to the late twentieth century development of cloning procedures. His own recent work involves the use of a new procedure to generate induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells that (like embryonic stem cells) can grow into any type of cell for use in genetic therapies but (unlike embryonic stem cells) do not carry the potential to develop into a complete human being. These iPS cells have been hailed by some politicians and ethicists as the answer to moral objections to embryonic stem cell research. But Isacson cautioned against restricting ongoing research into embryonic stem cells. Even though his team has generated iPS cells that produce dopamine — an important step in the search for a cure for Parkinson’s Disease — he warned that scientists do not yet know how iPS cells differ from embryonic stem cells, or how to control the genes they express. It may yet turn out, he said, that these new cells are not as medically helpful as is hoped.