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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Good riddance to Boris – but the Tory party still needs to find a unifying leader

With Boris gone, Theresa May and Michael Gove are serious contenders for the crown.

UPDATE:  From the moment Michael Gove decided to run for the Conservative leadership Boris Johnsons days were numbered. This is particularly true because of the typically unequivocal comment that Gove made about Johnsons leadership capabilities or lack of them in his announcement. For Johnson has led a remarkably charmed life in both politics and journalism in recent years. Reality has finally caught up with him. It was always going to be the case that if Gove stood many who had pledged their allegiance to Johnson would, because of this lack of leadership qualities, think again. The inevitable has now happened, and Johnson, for once, has accepted reality.

Michael Gove appears, at the eleventh hour, to have learned something about Boris Johnson that anyone who has worked with him either in journalism or politics could have told him years ago: that Johnson is entirely unreliable. The leaked email in which Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, warned him of the assurances he needed to get from Johnson before pledging himself as the key supporter in his campaign turns out to have been the writing on the wall for a clear run for Johnson. Word was swirling round Westminster after the email was leaked that Johnson appeared to have offered the same senior cabinet post – believed to have been the Treasury – to more than one person in return for support. Perhaps this was down to incompetence rather than dishonesty. Gove has made his own judgement, and it is, for an intelligent and serious man, an inevitable one.

Many Brexiteers, who feel that someone who shared their view should end up leading the Tory party, will be delighted by Gove’s decision. There was deep unease among many of them about the idea of a showman rather than a statesman inevitably ending up in Downing Street. What Gove will need to do now is to persuade colleagues who had gone behind Johnson because they did not want Theresa May to shift behind him. Some of Johnson’s supporters caused enormous surprise by their decision – such as Sir Nicholas Soames, who spent the referendum campaign denouncing Johnson on his Twitter feed – and they are not natural bedfellows of his. One Tory MP told me before Gove’s decision to stand that a group of “sensible” Tories had accepted the inevitability of a Johnson victory and had decided to get around him to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. The view that Johnson is unstoppable has now been tested, and those who had made the leap to support him may now well leap back.

Following Theresa May’s very assured launch of her campaign, which radiated statesmanship and sincerity, the Brexiteers need to ask themselves what sort of candidate is going to provide the best challenge to her, for she is clearly formidable. Given the choice between a volatile buffoon taking her on or someone who is more level-headed and serious doing so, the latter must inevitably be the best option. Johnson never looked like a unifying figure, and certainly not one it was easy for rational people to imagine leading the country in an international context.

Gove’s decision not to support Johnson does not merely withdraw his personal support. It will withdraw the support of many who were prepared, reluctantly, to follow his lead and join the Johnson campaign. It has a parallel in history, which was William Hague’s decision to run on his own account instead of supporting Michael Howard in the 1997 contest after the party’s annihilation by Tony Blair. Hague won, and turned out to be a hapless leader. Gove is made of heavier metal and the party is in less perilous circumstances, so the outcome for him, should he win, ought to be better.

In the past few days a considerable portion of the Tory party has taken leave of its senses. In such a condition, envisaging Johnson as its leader was easy. Sanity and calm are now prevailing. The Brexiteers in the party – or at least that group of them resolute that they cannot have a Remainer as leader can now reflect on whether they want an act or a politician to become prime minister. At least, thanks to Mr Gove, they now have a choice.

The Johnson phenomenon

Once upon a time, often within hours of a prime minister resigning, a “magic circle” of Tory grandees would decide after “soundings” whom to send to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands as the new man. Now, the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers has sought to do what it can to emulate the process, fast-tracking the election of David Cameron’s successor so that he or she is in place by 9 September, and ignoring calls for a period of wider reflection on whom the party needs to take it forward through the uncharted waters of negotiating an exit with the European Union. Longer consideration may have been helpful, given that the party is choosing not merely its leader, but the next prime minister.

It soon appeared the main fight would be between Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Jeremy Hunt proposed himself as a “second referendum” candidate, even though the Tory party in particular wants another plebiscite about as much as it would like to put its collective head in a mincer. There was talk of two lesser cabinet ministers, Stephen Crabb and Sajid Javid, presenting a “joint bid”, even though such a concept is unknown to the Conservative constitution; and others were floating around the margins. The tumult reflects the hysterical state of mind in the party: no one in Cameron’s inner circle expected the British public to disobey orders, including, one starts to imagine, Johnson. It is only the preposterous events in the Labour Party that have stopped the Tories from seeming to be completely out of control.

It has become Tory party lore that the favourite never wins, on the precept that he who wields the knife never ends up wearing the crown. Many of the Tory MPs believed nothing could prevent their colleagues voting in sufficient numbers to put Johnson in the second and final round of the contest, the one in which all paid-up members may vote. And if he got there, they felt, the outcome was even less in doubt: he would win.

Predicting this will happen and wanting it to happen are, of course, not the same thing. A distressed Tory MP told me he expected Labour sympathisers to join his party to vote for Johnson, rather as mischievous Tories joined Labour to elect Jeremy Corbyn. The rules, however, forbid such last-minute purchases of a vote: yet the sentiment shows what an equally substantial group of Tory MPs thought of Johnson’s capabilities, and explains why the anyone-but-Boris movement sprang into action the instant Cameron ran up the white flag. They knew that, for all Johnson’s failings, and there are many, he has the entertainer’s knack of making people love him. Sadly – and this is the part his adoring public doesn’t see – things can be very different when he enters his dressing room and starts to take off the make-up. As Sir Alan Duncan said forthrightly last weekend, there is the small matter of Johnson lacking the gravitas and experience to be a credible prime minister, something MPs should have the wit to take into account even if the party in the country at large does not.

The Johnson phenomenon is not the least reason why even some of Cameron’s most consistent critics did not call for him to resign if he lost the referendum. The more time the Tory party had to consider Johnson as a potential leader, and what that entailed, the better. Some MPs are angry that Cameron did not take immediate responsibility for cleaning up the mess he had helped make and preside over the exit negotiations. His colleagues feel he simply couldn’t be bothered, which is consistent with the often idle way he ran both his opposition and the government – an idleness that prevented him putting any contingency plan in place. The grand gesture, the great claim and the sweep of rhetoric are very arresting, and take little time. Following through is harder: but Cameron has a long record of not considering the consequences of words and actions, and this debacle for him is the ultimate, and most spectacular, example.

The pessimism that Johnson’s detractors felt about stopping him rested in what they knew and saw of the self-interest of their more bovine colleagues. The first concern of one group is to back the winner, and they came to think that would be Johnson (something with the status, in those circumstances, of a self-fulfilling prophecy). They also thought that should Labour find a new leader and become a serious opposition, Johnson was the man most likely to win an election. Whether that would come next spring – if the new leader sought a new mandate as Gordon Brown did not in 2007 – or in 2020, as the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act decrees, is a separate but important question. Johnson’s acolytes let it be known he would not call an early poll. He (or any other leader) would be absolutely constitutionally justified in not doing so. More to the point, you do not plot from the womb to become the Queen’s first minister only to risk chucking away the key to the Downing Street drinks cabinet after a few weeks. However, a weakened Labour Party may prove an irresistible target, and Tories recall how history would have been different if Gordon Brown had gone to the country in the autumn of 2007, as many urged him to do.

The press – and not just on the left – could well have given Johnson a hard time. His baroque private life has exhausted its capacity to shock, but there is scope to scrutinise his record of underachievement as mayor of London; or Michael Howard’s sacking him for lying; or the Times sacking him for making up quotations (from his godfather) in a story; or his offering to assist his old schoolfriend Darius Guppy in having a journalist who had disobliged Guppy beaten up. 

The manoeuvring May

Theresa May’s ambitions have been barely concealed. She has been “on manoeuvres” since the 2015 general election. She worked out that the best way to manoeuvre during the referendum campaign was to say nothing, to avoid becoming a divisive figure. Aside from some rare moments of half-hearted support for Remain, that is exactly what she did. Had she gone the other way, the leadership contest might have seemed closer, because her seniority and experience would have matched Johnson’s charisma. As it was, until Johnson pulled out, the best her colleagues believed she could hope for, barring some dramatic development, was to come second. A Times poll on Tuesday said that Tory voters preferred her to Johnson, which had the smell of accuracy about it. Activists – those with a vote – are a different matter. They appear in no mood at the moment to elect a Remainer.

Yet they are in some measure in the mood to elect a unifier. For all his attempts at sober statesmanship since the vote, Johnson (given his past) would have had to stretch credulity even more than usual to convince as one of those. The anyone-but-Boris movement has been motivated by the list of his perceived offences and character defects. Few believe he would have plumped for Leave had he thought it would lose: Johnson’s years on the rubber chicken circuit, and his mailbag from Telegraph readers in the provinces, made him more aware than most of his metropolitan colleagues of the true nature of public feeling outside the bubble. He is seen as utterly flexible in terms of principle: and, from the nature of his campaign rhetoric, as disloyal, cynical and lazy. Critics recall the number of deputy mayors (seven at one point) he required to do his last job. He is widely considered untrustworthy.

Perhaps he could have unified activists who seem near universally to admire his carefully manufactured persona: he would have found it harder to unify the parliamentary party, and would probably require a resounding general election victory before doing so. Even then, doubts born of years of witnessing his buffoonery and prevarication would be hard to allay.

The unifiers

MPs felt that two other Brexiteers had far better credentials as unifiers. The most obvious was Michael Gove, whom some tried to persuade to stand; but until today Gove had signalled his willingness to throw in his lot with Johnson.

The other increasingly discussed name in the days after the referendum was Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and, before that, economic secretary to the Treasury. Many even in her own party never thought of her as a potential leader until recent weeks: but these were weeks in which she showed her key virtues. She is intelligent and capable. She had a long career in business before entering government, and presents a happy contrast to ministers who spent their lives as special advisers before gracing the back benches. Leadsom is deeply principled but also reasonable: she abstained in the vote on same-sex marriage because she did not want to show a lack of respect to homosexuals and lesbians who wished to solemnise their relationships, but she could not support the notion because of her religious views. Remainers consider her to have performed uniformly well in debates and television interviews during the EU campaign, because she avoided personal attacks, spurious claims and wild threats.

She is popular with her colleagues. However, if she has let her name go forward she will start from the back of the field. It would require the sort of organisation that enabled Mrs Thatcher to beat Ted Heath in 1975 if she were to pull this off. However, should Johnson implode during this campaign, and she had become a candidate, she would be fabulously well placed to pick up his voters.

May would seem to be way ahead as the Remain candidate, but will have to earn that position in the hustings that will run over the summer. The dark horse is Stephen Crabb, who replaced Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions, in league with Sajid Javid, a secret Leaver who called it wrongly and who is now trying to salvage his future. A self-deprecating man from a humble background and with few enemies, Crabb, who was previously Welsh secretary, reminds me of John Major, who was brought into the cabinet and rose rapidly. In a leadership campaign held in the middle of a parliament, Major won and became prime minister, trading heavily on a backstory of his unprivileged upbringing. He may be the man May must beat.

George Osborne has ruled himself out but remains relevant. He wants to carry on in government and, like the overgrown student politician he is, may be about to make an accommodation with those he has denounced for months in order to continue to hold a senior post. Also, not least because of Cameron’s laziness and casual attitude towards his party, he had exercised a substantial and growing influence over patronage and especially over senior government appointments. He had made a point of getting to know MPs on the way up, not least because he expected to be prime minister and wanted to be sure he had a clientele of loyalists to support him. He was starting to appoint his ministerial team, in effect, before becoming prime minister.

Osborne’s prospects have crashed, but his machine remains, for the moment, intact. If he has chosen wisely, he has a group of loyalists whom he can deploy in support of the candidate he chooses. However, now he can be of no use to his clients, it will be interesting to see whether they take the blindest bit of notice of him.

There was talk of Johnson making him foreign secretary, which would show an advanced sense of humour, given the role that person might have to play in the exit negotiations. Gove, if he had thrown in his lot with Johnson, might have ended up as chancellor.

The party is so fractious that the next nine weeks could provide a roller coaster: any talk of going back on the idea of strict border controls, for instance – something Johnson hinted at – could cause huge turbulence. I suspect we are about to find that conducting a leadership contest at any time is a project laced with tension; to conduct one in a climate of scarcely concealed hysteria is not least why anything could yet happen.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies