President-elect Obama has pledged to lift the seven-year ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research — a boon for the field. But for some scientists, it almost doesn't matter. Researchers at Harvard and Columbia reported a milestone experiment in July, using a new method — one that doesn't require embryos at all — to generate the first motor neurons from stem cells in two elderly women with Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS. The technique, developed by Kyoto University scientist Shinya Yamanaka in 2006, involves reprogramming a patient's ordinary skin cells to behave like stem cells, then coaxing them into the desired tissue-specific cells. Using the motor neurons created from ALS patients, scientists can now study the progress of the disease as the affected cells develop, degenerate and die in a dish — something researchers could never do before for such slow-moving conditions. Once scientists understand the development of ALS, they may be able to create more effective treatments, or perhaps even a cure.
In a transplant first, doctors in Spain gave Claudia Lorena Castillo Sanchez, 30, a new windpipe, constructed from a donor trachea lined with Sanchez's own stem cells. It's the first time a patient's adult stem cells, extracted from bone marrow, have been used to seed a new tissue or organ for transplant. Because the donor trachea was stripped of cells that could cause rejection, Sanchez, who suffered from tuberculosis and lost function of one branch of her trachea, avoided having to take the powerful immunosuppressant drugs that transplant patients normally require. Doctors expect that this type of transplant, which is still experimental, will need several more years of study before it becomes widely used. But Sanchez, for one, is happy she didn't have to wait that long; the mother of two is already back to work and enjoying dancing six months after her operation.
Notice that two of the top ten medical breakthroughs for 2008 involved wonderful advances in the use of adult stem cells from the patient's own body. Notice also that despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that has been spent on "embryonic stem cell research" that involves destroying human embryos, live human beings, no breakthroughs at all have yet been made.
At the same time, hundreds of advances have been made using adult stem cells. Obviously arrogance and money ("if we just spend enough we can make it work") seem to be the determining factor as to why embryonic stem cell research has not been completely abandoned. Not science and medicine.
One imagines that when Lister told doctors to wash their hands, when Pasteur prescribed vaccinations and when Madame Sklodowska Curie explained X-Rays, the medical establishment resisted because they had faith in cures that were much more complicated (and profitable for them).