By Matthew Inman
Recently, the world of stem cell research has been celebrating the achievement of two huge milestones that may very well help in the ongoing debate on the usefulness and morality of this type of scientific study.
First, in Japan, scientists were able to grow a retina in a laboratory, a breakthrough that may lead to the better understanding and treatment of many diseases of the human eye, perhaps even blindness.
Next, only five days after this was reported, it was revealed that scientists at Edinburgh University in Scotland had achieved their own breakthrough—a kidney grown in their laboratory—that could help to forever revolutionize the system of organ donating.
Though both accomplishments stir up similar excitement and hope for the future in the scientific and medical communities, a key difference is that while the kidney was made from a mixture of human and animal stem cells and is considered a human kidney (though only partly grown), the retina was, according to the website Nature News on Nature.com, “created by coaxing mouse embryonic stem cells into a precise three-dimensional assembly” and is still a mouse, not a human, retina.
The full impact of these triumphs will most likely take several years of testing to discover, but there is speculation to both the long- and short-term benefits.
In the case of the retina, the process which created it could be used to create synthetic human retinas that could theoretically serve as replacements for non-functioning ones. But even before that, the retinas will be able to aid in the research of eye disease and treatment.
Adding to the promise of the lab-grown retina in helping with eye disease, Nature News cites Robin Ali, a geneticist at the Institute of Ophthalmology in London, who refers to his 2006 study that “found that retinal cells from newborn mice work when transplanted into older mice.” Obviously, the practical application of this to humans is dubious, and the possibility of cells grown outside the body is significantly more appealing.
The lab-grown kidney also promises a bright future. If the kidney can be used as a synthetic transplant that would grow and function in a human body, the implications are vast in the world of organ replacement.
According to the Scottish website Daily Record, “Around 7000 people in the UK are on the waiting list for a new kidney and demand for organs is increasing.” But with the development of the technology to grow a kidney from human stem cells, the idea is that “instead of waiting for donor organs to become available, scientists could collect amniotic fluid at birth, store it and use it if the person goes on to develop kidney disease.” Because these cells would actually come from the person, the risk of rejection of the kidney may disappear completely.
Though the possibility of this is not yet known, the hope is that this sort of technology will be able to be used to grow other organs, thus eliminating the need and shortage of organ donation and saving millions of lives.
Even thought these two events are huge breakthroughs in medical science,, there is still a long way to go until they can have an effect on actual human transplants. James Davies, a physiologist and Edinburgh University professor, comments on the fact that the kidney grown in their laboratory is still just the size of a normal fetal kidney as opposed to a full-grown man’s or woman’s: “If you have got a bunch of stem cells sitting in a test tube, that is a long way from being a beautifully, anatomically organized organ like a kidney, which is quite a complicated structure. So we are working on how you turn cells floating about in liquid into something as precisely arranged as a kidney.”
Not to take away anything from either of these accomplishments. Davies adds, truthfully, “We have made pretty good progress with that.”