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July 26, 2005 > Stem cells: A dream for a cure

Stem cells: A dream for a cure

(This is the third of a series of articles addressing the biology and promise of stem cell research)

by Praveena Raman

Roman Reed, 19 year-old son of Horner Junior High School Teacher Don Reed, made 11 unassisted tackles, forced and recovered a fumble and made a diving interception on Sept. 10, 1994 for his Chabot College football team. In the fourth quarter, at the end of a play, he lay with a broken neck under a pile of players. Paralyzed from the neck down, Roman was told there was no hope of ever walking, closing his fingers or fathering a child. Today, Roman has use of his triceps, is married and has two children. With the support of his wife, Terri, and his father who co-founded Californians for Cure, the Roman Reed Core Laboratory for Spinal Cord Injury awards grants for research in this area. Stem cell research is on the cutting edge of progress to help those with spinal cord injury regain mobility. Dr. Hans Keirstead and his colleagues at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center have shown that human embryonic stem cell therapy developed in their laboratory has restored mobility in rats with SCI 1

What are stem cells?
Stem cells are primitive cells that do not have special characteristics. They can undergo cell division and renew themselves for long periods. Under certain conditions they can be converted into cells with specialized functions like those that produce insulin in the pancreas. There are primarily two types of stem cells from animals and humans that are used in research: the embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

Recently, using the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique, scientists from South Korea were able to produce patient-specific cell lines. The researcher team inserted DNA from skin cells of patient into eggs from which the nucleus was removed. Cell division was chemically induced and cell lines which genetically matched the patient were produced. This research could allow scientists to study the origins of diseases like Alzheimer's.

"Somatic cell nuclear transfer technique offers a lot of hope for a cure" says Don Reed. "Theoretically the stem cells from Roman's mouth could be scraped and placed in a donated egg and allowed to multiply in a Petri dish. Once the stem cell line develops in the dish, it could be placed in Roman's injured neck. These could then grow into healthy normal cells that could reconnect his body and brain."

With controversies swirling around stem cell research, especially in the use of human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has developed stringent oversight guidelines to ensure that research is conducted in an ethical, legal and moral way. These guidelines separate those who conduct research from those who donate stem cells, preventing any conflict of interest. While legislators battle over the ethical and moral issues raised by stem cell research, it is important to understand the argument for public funding. It is said that such funding enables the brightest and best researchers to explore the biomedical implications of stem cells, provide standardized practices and government regulation of stem cell use.

While the United States is still debating these issues, scientists from around the globe are making substantial progress in this area. Dr. Keirstead comments, "The recent breakthrough in Korea underscores the fact that excellent research is taking place outside of the United States, and should urge Americans to get more involved in this area before they miss out on this tremendous opportunity for economic development and medical breakthroughs. What was done in Korea can be done here; given the tremendous number of scientists and financial resources that America has to offer, it could likely be done better and faster."

As the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is getting ready to disburse funds for stem cell research at different medical schools and institutes around the state, perhaps Roman and Don Reed's dream and Christopher Reeve's prediction will be realized sooner than we think. In a personal letter to the Reed family, Christopher Reeve wrote, "One day, Roman and I will stand up from our wheelchairs, and walk away from them forever." Christopher Reeve had been a great supporter of stem cell research and even though "the Champion has fallen," says Don Reed, "the flame of his faith still lights our way and people like Bob Klein [chairman of the California Institute for regenerative medicine] have picked up the torch and we go on."

Hans S. Keirstead, Gabriel Nistor, Giovanna Bernal, Minodora Totoiu, Frank Cloutier, Kelly Sharp, Oswald Steward. "Human Embryonic Stem Cell-Derived Oligodendrocyte Progenitor Cell Transplants Remyelinate and Restore Locomotion after Spinal Cord Injury", J. Neurosci., May 2005; 25: 4694 - 4705.

Further Reading:
Weiss, Rick "The Stem Cell Divide" National Geographic Magazine, July 2005, Pg.3-27.
Reeve- Irvine Research Center -

California Institute for Regenerative Medicine -

International Society for Stem Cell Research -

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