One thing that people should take away from our ongoing coverage of the stem cell issue is the amazing degree to which every other field of medicine potentially stands to gain from progress in stem cell research (more here). Today’s NY Times again underlines the point with a story looking at how stem cells may explain the way that many forms of cancer frustratingly resist treatment:
One day, perhaps in the distant future, stem cells may help repair diseased tissues. But there is a far more pressing reason to study them: stem cells are the source of at least some, and perhaps all, cancers.
At the heart of every tumor, some researchers believe, lie a handful of aberrant stem cells that maintain the malignant tissue.
The idea, if right, could explain why tumors often regenerate even after being almost destroyed by anticancer drugs. It also points to a different strategy for developing anticancer drugs, suggesting they should be selected for lethality to cancer stem cells and not, as at present, for their ability to kill just any cells and shrink tumors.
Chalk up cancer patients as another group who stands to get shafted when our government lets its rightmost fringe dictate science policy.
Hoist on his own petard! Am I committing a logical fallacy by claiming that cancer paitents are affected by a federal policy which excludes embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from federal research money (actually, the policy restricts federal funds to a dwindling batch of subpar ESC lines)? Techinically, yes. Naughty me. That said, the first answer is that the restriction on federal funds means a lot. State and local funds amount to a hill of beans, and private funding (e.g., Merck) means that the data may well not be shared and could get patented and sat on by the company for decades while they, and they alone, work on commercializing a therapy. Federal funds specifically mandate that research gets shared with the public, ensuring that all of the private sector will have the opportunity to freely compete and a potential therapy has a better chance of reaching the market sooner.
Second, the question of adult versus embryonic stem cells. I think that we can learn quite a lot about cancer from studying stem cells derived from adults. Therapies, however, will very likely require something more flexible. I can easily imagine a treatment that halts cancer growth by specifically weeding the stem cells out of an adult’s body, which would leave an extremely unhealthy adult. Physicians would then have the problem of replacing the lost stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are a vastly better choice for this because you can replace stem cells all over the body from a single pool. The alternative would be separately growing brain, epithelial, bone marrow and every other type of semi-differentiated stem cell and injecting them individually. Again, this is hypothetical but it illustrates why we limit ourselves by dictating which stem cells we can and cannot work on.