Nicholas Pell
Dec 21, 2011

Regenerative medicine stalls out

Recently, scientists were able to grow a pituitary gland using embryonic stem cells. The pituitary gland is sort of the “brain” of the endocrine system. The regenerative medicine community isn’t doing cartwheels yet, however. The catch?


First, the pituitary gland is for a mouse. Second, the gland remained embryonic, with scientists unsure if or how it could be grown into an adult gland.


Research into regenerating human tissue is nothing new. Famed aviator Charles Lindberg did this in the 1930s. What is relatively new, however, is the successful regeneration of tissue and even whole organs possible. However, the technology currently remains a bit stunted. Particularly with regard to arguably the most important area of regenerative medicine -- the brain and central nervous system -- the prospects are promising while the reality is underwhelming.


Certainly no one should be anything less than amazed at the ability of biologists to grow bladders and other organs in labs. However, regenerative medicine is currently mostly a reactive process. Barring some developments in Type 1 diabetes, regenerative medicine is, at this point, mostly about fixing damage rather than curing illness entirely. The Internet contains a lot of articles about the “potential” of regenerative medicine to help doctors treat spinal injuries or cure Parkinson’s disease.


Brain research, however, remains remarkably stalled and in only the most embryonic form. Note the language in this abstract from the journal Nature: “Human skin cells have been directly converted into neurons, an achievement that could lead to the cell-based treatment of neurodegenerative disorders. But the road ahead remains long and tortuous.” While the achievement itself sounds impressive to the layman, it is, to use a crude analogy, sort of the rough equivalent of sticking your keys in the ignition. Sure, it’s a start, but it doesn’t get you any closer to where you need to go. The language is curiously cautious: “Could lead to.”


Research shows that neuron transplants can repair cell damage in non-human primates, though tough challenges lie ahead. The brain is difficult not only because it is one of the most delicate and complex organs in the body. It also changes over the life of the organism. These changes are significant, making the brain of a child and the brain of a full-grown adult almost entirely different animals all together. This means that scientists are not dealing with a single organ, but for all intents and purposes several different organs that bear some resemblance to another.


Of course, none of this addresses the elephant in the room: The legal restrictions and lack of public funding on the research in the United States. Research will not move from mice to men without loosening the restrictions placed upon researchers. Thus, for the time being, regenerative medicine remains little more than an interesting trick, with brain research being little more than practical experiments in science fiction.


However, the United States isn’t the only country on earth. Restrictions are looser in other countries, though ethical considerations remain. But one major point is that the United States will simply not be a center of innovation in the field of stem cell research or the regenerative medicine that it leads to as long as these restrictions are in place. The dialectic also works both ways: The world is robbed of work on regenerative medicine done by some of the top research universities in the world. One can’t help but wonder what the journals would be saying were America able to throw its whole weight behind this emerging technology.