Stem cell research marches on

While the ethical and political debates rage over stem cells from human embryos, scientists continue to discover how those cells work and what they can do.

About 2 weeks before President Bush made his decision to fund certain kinds of stem cell research (SN: 8/18/01, p. 105), investigators from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reported at a meeting that injections of human embryonic stem cells restored some mobility to paralyzed rodents. The damage to the spinal cord, which the researchers cause by injecting a virus into the animals, mimics amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Although the research has not been published in a scientific journal, several lawmakers on Capitol Hill viewed videotape of once-paralyzed rodents walking after the treatment. Congress is now considering how to regulate stem cell research.

Meanwhile, an Israeli research team has further demonstrated the flexibility of human embryonic stem cells by converting them into two potentially valuable types of cells. Under the proper conditions, the lab-grown stem cells transform into insulin-secreting cells that could help treat people with diabetes, Joseph Itskovitz-Eldor of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and his colleagues report in the August Diabetes. Some of the same scientists report in the August Journal of Clinical Investigation that they have converted human embryonic stem cells into cardiomyocytes, the muscle cells that drive the beating of the heart.

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