Guest blogger Alan Trounson — August’s stem cell research highlights

Each month CIRM President Alan Trounson gives his perspective on recently published papers he thinks will be valuable in moving the field of stem cell research forward. This month’s report, along with an archive of past reports, is available on the CIRM website.

This month produced several papers that address fundamental issues in the field of stem cell research and provided us with some rebuttal points for one-liners tossed at us by some of our critics. If you have followed the field you’ve heard detractors of embryonic stem cells say: “why are we wasting our time on a cell type that causes tumors.” That is because in their most primitive pluripotent state embryonic stem cells form a type of tumor called a teratoma. While no one has ever planned to place a still-pluripotent embryonic stem cell in a patient—the plan has always been to mature them into tissue-specific cells first—the criticism has remained. Now, a team at Stanford has shown a way of completely purifying those progenitor cells and removing all the pluripotent cells capable of forming a tumor. (We blogged about that work here.)

Our critics also state that embryonic stem cells are by nature “anti-life” because a very early stage embryo is destroyed isolating them. But now a Japanese team has succeeded in reliably and efficiently producing viable sperm from embryonic stem cells. The follow-on research to this project could go a long way to reducing infertility around the globe. And that is certainly a pro-life outcome.

Finally a series of articles dealt with a very real and looming issue for the field. What is the role for sham surgery, mimicking the placement of cells, in controlled clinical trials for cell-based therapies. This has become a particularly contentious issue in Parkinson’s disease where there is shown to be a physiologic reason for a strong placebo effect. If you are interested in this question I encourage you to read the three pieces cited in my literature summary this month.

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