$20M for Induced Stem Cells? You should just give it to me instead.

by Bradley Miller on April 16, 2009

I saw an interesting funding press release earlier this week regarding $20M that Al Gore and the Kleiner Perkins gurus put in to induced pluripotent stem cell company iZumi.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely and wholly behind funding stem cell research, but I’m not so sure I’d fund companies just yet – especially induced pluripotent stem cells.

Ok, taking a step back, for the most part most people understand what stem cells are and that they will be the source of many medical breakthroughs well in to the future.  The NIH actually has a fantastic description of stem cells on their site and dives in to more technical descriptions of the cells, including the meaning of pluripotent stem cells, but if you’re a non-science person and can read that page and make full sense of it, congrats.  Basically, here’s the scoop – there are many types of stem cells, each with their own capabilities.  Essentially, the stem cells that are found within adults are more “mature” and do not have the freedom to become any tissue in the body – they’re already somewhat “programmed” toward a specific type of tissue.  This works well for adults to heal and maintain the body, but as of yet it doesn’t really work for actual clinical applications.

But, haven’t scientists actually ‘forced’ these cells to become they type of stem cells that can become anything?  Kind of, yes.  I tend to think the huge press that break through got was more of a right wing press push, rather than standing on it’s own merits. If you can get adult stem cells to become the type that can become anything, then you don’t have to destroy embryos – or so their thinking went.  But that’s not totally true – when researchers have put these induced stem cells in to rat models, the cells consistently, 100% of the time turn in to cancer.  I could explain the scientific basis, but for now understand that if we massively tinker with the inside of cells, they tend to become cancerous.

The type of stem cells that are found in embryos can become any tissue in the body – that’s what the term pluripotent means.  To date, an embryo is still the place to to be able to obtain these types of cells.  I’m not suggesting that we’re anywhere close to understanding embryonic-based stem cells, but to me they still seem to make the most sense.  Induced Pluripotency alters adult stem cells in to a state similar to embryonic-based pluripotent stem cells, but it’s still not close enough – we don’t understand enough to go ahead and justify therapies based on induced stem cell technology, and I certainly wouldn’t throw private money behind one of those companies just yet.

All that said, I sincerely hope NIH will ramp up its investment in stem cells so we can get back on top of the technology.  But for now, I’m still very skeptical on any stem cell technology that involves induced pluripotency, rather than starting with ‘natural’ pluripotency.  It will probably boil down to situations where the induced technologies will be good for certain research applications and the embryonic cells will have to be more of the gold standard.  Now that access to embryonic derived cells has been opened more, I’m excited to see what the future holds.  In the meantime, KPCB, want to just send that $20M my way?

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