Monday, late morning.
You’d think Robert Lanza was a miracle worker. He and his team at Advanced Cell Technologies in Massachusetts have devised a technique for creating stem cells — without destroying an embryo. Their paper on it was published yesterday in the journal Nature, and seems to work great, at least in mice.
What biotechnologists did until now was create an embryo, let it grow from one to two to four to eight cells, and then break it up in order to harvest their stem cells.
Lanza’s technique is less destructive. With a microscopic pipette, a technician plucks a single cell from a growing embryo, and from that cultivates a new colony, or “line,” of stem cells. The embryo keeps on growing, eventually into a baby mouse.
(The hope, in case you’ve been out of touch, is that stem cells will cure all sorts of disease. They’re capable of turning into specialized cells in the body. So if, say, you’ve had a heart attack, someday in the future a doctor might inject stem cells into your damaged heart muscle. Wait a bit and a miracle happens — the stem cells grow what amounts to a heart-muscle graft. Still unproved, but that’s the hope.)
Lanza’s approach is billed as potentially solving the political and ethical problem that’s vexed anti-abortion forces. No longer are you killing that embryo — potentially a new life — in hope of saving others. No more test-tube abortions. At least in mice.
But that last detail — the mouse part — may be what ultimately makes this development unimportant. The number of terrific mouse studies that never worked out in humans is legion. They cured cancer in mice years ago, and it has so far been a dead end for us people.
So the issue is not closed. Not in humans.