Where now for stem cell research?

Eleven years ago, Vee and I were flying from Beijing to London after a trip to China and found ourselves talking to a 25 year old Chinese student who had never been out of China. She was on her way to Oxford University to start a PhD in biochemical engineering.

Dr Hua Ye is now a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University and married with a son of four and Hua, Zhihao and little Joshua are as close to us as family. Indeed last year, we all went on a holiday to China together.

This weekend, Vee and I drove over to Abingdon for one of our regular visits to our Chinese ‘family’. I asked Hua to tell me something about the prospects for stem cell research and she explained to me the potential importance of something called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

For non-scientific readers like me, stem cells are the most basic type of cell in all multi-cellular organisms that can develop into the full variety of specialised cells such as those found in skin or bone and the term pluripotent is a technical way of expressing the potential of these cells to become many different types of more specialised cells.

Now induced pluripotent stem cells are different from natural ones in two important respects. First, whereas natural stem cells come from embryos with all the attendant moral controversy, induced stem cells come from animals and humans. Second, whereas embryonic cells are not a patient’s cells, induced cells could be created from a particular patient so that they would not be rejection problems.

So, in time, we might see major breakthroughs in the treatment of ill-health and the extension of longevity.

If you want more technical detail on iPSCs, you can read the Wikipedia article here.


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