Saved by the cell

Two recent cases show the progress being made by stem-cell researchers – but their work is still und

In early October, someone - we don't know who - in or around Atlanta, Georgia, became paralysed. This is not exceptional - spinal injuries paralyse 12,000 Americans each year. The victim, however, is exceptional: for this is the first person to receive a treatment that might restore his or her damaged cells. Imagine, then, how that patient feels to know that a nearby judge is considering forcing the American government to stop funding further research into this treatment because it uses embryonic stem cells (ESCs).

There has been so much fuss about ESCs that it is startling to realise that this patient in Atlanta was the first person to get them. But he was not alone for long. On 16 November, doctors in Glasgow announced that they had injected a slightly different kind of stem cell into the brain of a man disabled by a stroke.

The trials will continue. The next few years are their make-or-break time. The bottom line is that stem cells are not yet a panacea. Many scientists are convinced that they could be used to treat injured spines and brains - as well as diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, MS and other conditions. Yet research is under renewed threat after Republican victories in the US midterm elections reinforced opposition to it.

We all start as a clump of identical cells. Their descendants then differentiate into our 200-odd specialised components - nerve cells, blood cells and the rest. But if you lose nerve cells, nearby blood cells do not revert to their embryonic state and re-differentiate into the nerve cells that you need. Very early embryonic cells, however, can become anything. ESCs come from surplus embryos created during in vitro fertilisations - abortions, as far as the US religious right is concerned. They are coaxed to become differentiated cells that can, in theory, be given to those in need: insulin-producing cells for diabetes patients, for example.

Geron Corporation of San Francisco has turned ESCs into a kind of cell that insulates nerves. In most paralysing spinal injuries, says Anna Krassowska of Geron, it is those cells that are damaged. If Geron's cells are injected into rats soon after such an injury, they restore some normal movement. But the trial in Atlanta must first ensure that they are safe in humans: ESCs can become confused and proliferate into an unhelpful mass. So the team is waiting, Krassowska says, to see if the cells behave, before starting on a second patient.

Federal funds

Geron's cells were taken from an embryo created before 2001. On 9 August that year, President George W Bush decreed that federal funding could be used only for work with the 21 lines of ESCs already established. Hundreds of new lines, with useful genetic differences, have since been established - but US scientists could not use federal money to study them.

Funding does exist elsewhere: Glasgow is a case in point, while the London Project to Cure Blindness hopes to treat age-related degeneration of the retina with ESCs by 2012. But the political uncertainties have stifled private investment in stem cells, analysts say, while the sheer scale of US science funding meant that the ruling was a blow. "Federal funding just for work with those 21 permitted cell lines between 2001 and 2009 was still more than the rest [of the funding] put together," Chris Mason of University College London tells me.

In 2009, President Obama lifted the restrictions. But in August this year, a US district court halted ESC research under a budget law banning the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos. If the decision is upheld, government-funded ESC work, even on previously permitted lines, must stop. Plaintiffs in the case charge that ESCs take funding away from research on non-embryonic stem cells, an argument that anti-abortion groups have seized on.

Non-embryonic cells are already used therapeutically. Doctors can culture a patient's own skin or cartilage cells to create grafts or rebuild windpipes. But these are differentiated and are not stem cells. Bone-marrow cells that normally generate blood cells are stem cells, however, and have been transplanted routinely for years. Similar, relatively undifferentiated "adult stem cells" are thought to lurk in most organs, capable of becoming that particular tissue. Such cells in the eye are used to regenerate corneas after chemical burns. In humans, these cells do only so much and there are lots of tissues we can't regenerate. The long-term hope is to induce them to do more - maybe even regenerate lost limbs. This is fine with those who oppose ESCs, but it's also far in the future.

More immediately, cells in the developing human foetus, at a later stage than embryos, are already committed to a certain range of types - skin and nerves, say - but are still flexible. These sorts of cells, from a line derived by ReNeuron, based in Guildford, were injected into the stroke victim's brain in Glasgow. However, their foetal source means they attract the same opposition as ESCs.

Mouse key

Induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs) are another story. These are differentiated cells that have been turned back into something like embryonic cells by reversing four kinds of chemical change in their DNA. It is IPSC research that plaintiffs in the US legal battle claim is unfairly deprived of funding by work on ESCs. Many hope that IPSCs will make ideological opposition to other stem cells moot. "It is understandable that individuals should feel uneasy about the use of foetal cells," says Darren Griffin, professor of genetics at the University of Kent. But IPSCs "have the potential to get around many of these ethical concerns".

The key word is potential: IPSCs are far from ready. Differentiation flips thousands of chemical switches in a cell's DNA. Flipping just one the wrong way can make a normal cell into a cancerous one - and we don't know where all the switches are in any given IPSC, Mason says. "In ESCs, we know where they are." There's also something not quite right about current IPSCs. You can breed a normal-looking mouse from them - but it doesn't live long. Does this make them unsafe for repairing a broken spine? We don't know yet. But for ESCs, we soon will.

The supposed choice between funding foetal or embryonic stem cells and adult ones seems more ideological than scientific. "We need to work on all avenues," Mason says. Future IPSCs or adult stem cells - or even remodelled differentiated cells - may one day work better for certain things than ESCs or foetal cells, especially if they are a patient's own. "But research on ESCs is ten years farther along," Mason says. "We'll lose what we've already learned if we stop working with them."

For now, ECSs and foetal cells present the best hope of success soon. And a few successes, researchers hope, could change everything. If the kind of cells now settling into a spine in Atlanta and a brain in Glasgow can make the lame walk and the blind see, ideological objections might melt away as they did for in vitro fertilisation. How soon that happens depends partly on what happens in a US courtroom.

Debora MacKenzie writes for the New Scientist

The American right to life

When the scientist James Thomson and his team first succeeded in isolating human embryonic stem cells at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1998, they inadvertently triggered a debate that has dominated political discourse in the US. In the index of George W Bush's memoir, the stem-cell controversy receives more mentions than Osama Bin Laden.

Arguments over stem-cell research have emerged as a virulent offshoot of the abortion debate, with pro-life campaigners seizing on stem-cell research as another assault on the sanctity of life. Bush's decision in 2001 to limit such research was challenged repeatedly by Congress, which tried to pass bills opening up research in 2005 and 2007, when the house was under Republican and Democrat control respectively. Despite Barack Obama's reversal of the restrictions, the issue has not been put to bed.

The recent success of the Republican Party in the midterm elections has been powered in part by the pro-life Tea Party movement. It is unlikely that the current Republican-controlled Congress will support the liberalisation of research.

Advocates of stem-cell research have high-profile backers such as the actor Michael J Fox, who has Parkinson's. But they will need to speak loudly to be heard over the resurgent right.

Duncan Robinson

This article first appeared in the 29 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Congo

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times