Is there an alternative to embryonic stem cells?
Professor Sanbing Shen: Regenerative medicine has the potential to transform the treatment of a wide variety of medical disorders with currently sub-optimal treatments.
Stem cell therapy is one way to regenerate damaged tissue. This type of treatment requires first the isolation and purification of stem cells followed by their transplantation into patients, and this complex process is governed by strict EU regulations.
Stem cells may be isolated either from adult tissues or derived from embryos. Embryonic stem cells, which have the capacity to become any cell type in the body, offer tremendous prospects for regenerative medicine.
However, the ethical issue surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells has largely compromised the funding, research and clinical application.
In addition, many safety issues associated with potential embryonic stem cell therapies remain to be fully addressed. Funding for research using human embryos is currently prohibited by the Irish Government.
Because of the issues associated with them, scientists have been searching for alternatives to embryonic stem cells. A ground-breaking technology has recently been developed by a Japanese scientist named Shinya Yamanaka, who successfully converted skin cells into 'induced pluripotent stem' (iPS) cells by transferring four proteins to the cell.
Largely similar to embryonic stem cells, iPS cells can become any cell type and therefore may be considered as an alternative to embryonic stem cells.
This has raised the possibility of personalised treatment, which involves generation of iPS cells in culture dishes from a patient's skin tissue, manufacture of a particular cell type which is defective in that patient, and transplantation of these cells back to the same patient.
This technology could ease many of the ethical and immune rejection concerns we see with embryonic cells.
I recently joined the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI), based at the National NUI Galway, which was set up in 2004 by Professor Timothy O'Brien and Professor Frank Barry.
Supported by Science Foundation Ireland, a team at REMEDI including myself, Frank Barry, and Maojia Xu, have recently made iPS cells for the first time in Ireland.
REMEDI are now partnering with academics and clinicians from all over Ireland, including Trinity College Dublin, the Royal College of Surgeons and Galway University Hospitals, to study iPS cells and their clinical potential in the treatment of many different diseases.
Besides their clinical potential, iPS cells can also be used as biological models of disease which allow researchers to study disease progression and to develop alternative conventional drugs. iPS technology has a long path to navigate prior to their use in clinical trials. In the interim, however, these cells can be used to understand the cause of disease and as a test bed for new drug development.
Irish Independent Supplement