The British news media reported yesterday that a team of scientists from Newcastle University has successfully developed a so-called “mini-liver” from human umbilical cord stem cells. While not a true liver, this mini may have some of the basic parts of a human liver. Although the research has not been peer-reviewed, and the methodology is therefore under question, the research would be a welcome advance in the fields of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.
If the work is reproducible, Drs. Nico Forraz and Colin McGuckin imagine a timeline for future therapeutic offspring: within two years, they could use the minis to test for drug safety; in five years, they might be able to use minis as “dialysis livers”; and after fifteen to twenty years they may grow chunks or even whole livers for transplantation. The scientists hope the manufactured livers will act as cures for liver disease and begin rectifying the current supply-demand mismatch for liver transplantation.
The scientists’ proposed timeline highlights a commonality of all stem cell research: it takes precious time to do the work. Even if you’ve reached one goal of basic biology—understanding a system enough to recapitulate some of its elements—the work still requires decades of further research before it could produce a “cure.”
The much younger and more poorly funded science of human embryonic stem cells could take longer to produce clinical “cures” following the normal pace of research. Human embryonic stem cells were first derived in 1998, whereas human umbilical cord stem cells were first identified as such in 1982. The NIH provides $200 million each year for non-embryonic human stem cells—from which hUSC research is funded—as opposed to $39 million per year for hESC research.
The way for any type of science to realize its promise, as reports indicate that it did in the Newcastle labs, is for it to have competitive resources and funding. The United States has unfortunately hindered the ability of hESC to compete by enacting crippling restrictions. The American public recognizes this policy failure, and their support is fervent, genuine, and widespread.
But along with great passion comes great impatience. The excitement of new discovery makes it difficult to understand the accepted, and common, long-term requirements for slow, methodical research. There is rightly great hope in the air—scientists believe that hESCs are more promising than other stem cells, including hUSC. So with these great scientific successes with hUSCs, it is not difficult to imagine the even greater success with hESCs.
All scientific achievement should be celebrated—be it in hESC, hUSC, or the Hubble Space Telescope X-ray data. The current political climate has steered all stem cell research away from an ethical and apolitical pursuit of knowledge, into a flurry of press releases and attention-grabbing headlines. The only way to rectify the anxiety and sensationalism is to give basic science in hESC full support with the funding, time, and space to breathe. This much we have afforded to other sciences. Only then will we see the promise of pluripotency, in whichever way it may manifest. The UK team has shown that it’s going to take patience, time, and support to do it right.
For more information on funding for stem cell research see: