UCI’s Maura Hofstadter provided a brief yet comprehensive lecture on stem cell usage and research in today’s medical field. (Lariat Archives)
Dr. Maura Hofstadter, Director of Education and Scientific Liaison from U.C. Irvine’s Reeve-Irvine Research Center delivered a talk entitled, “Stem Cells: Progress, Policy, Promise” in the Student Lounge on Sept.12.
Lasting a little over an hour and a half, Hofstadter lectured on the basics of stem cells: their function, their controversial history on the political stage, and the progress that her center and the greater scientific community are making.
Reeve-Irvine Center’s research focuses on a broad gamut of topics in the stem cell field, from basic questions about their biological function to specific therapeutic applications.
“This is an extremely new field,” said Hofstadter. “It’s only about ten years old, yet the progress that we have made is remarkable.”
Her talk covered the two main varieties of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
Two main qualities define stem cells: their ability to become different types of cells, a liver or heart cell for example, (called “differentiation”) and their ability to continue dividing without becoming a particular cell (called “potency”).
Embryonic stem cells come from an early human embryo called a blastocyst, a mass of 50-150 cells that forms four-to-five days after conception. Each blastocyst used in research represents a “line,” a family of stem cells from this original ball of cells.
Adult stem cells are found throughout the body of a developed adult that, like embryonic stem cells, are able to differentiate. They repair damaged tissues and revive dying cells.
One student interrupted Hofstadter’s explanation of embryonic stems cells and posed a question as to how ethical this practice was.
Many believe that using human embryonic cells is unethical because they can no longer develop into human no babies.
Hofstadter pointed out that that the embryonic stem cells used in scientific research are ones that fertility clinics discard. “These cells weren’t going to be used anyway,” she said, “so I believe that it’s unethical not to use them for research.”
Not only are people concerned about destroying the potential for human life, but stem cell research is often intertwined with human research is often intertwined with human cloning.
True, they are related in that they both begin with the same laboratory technique. Hofstadter stressed, however, that human cloning was more science fiction than science fact.
“We have absolutely no idea how to clone humans,” she said, “and for that matter, why would we want to?”
Such ethical unease in the United States has created a difficult research environment for human Embryonic Stem Cell Research (hESC), making these stem cells extremely hard to acquire.
In August of 2001, President Bush restricted hESC to stem cell lines already in existence. As of now, Adult stem cell research is unrestricted.
At that time, advisors told him that there were seventy useable lines.
These lines, however, can become impure as they divide through mutation and contamination. Currently, only 10-15 are useable.
California, however, passed Proposition 71 in Nov of 2004, which allocated $3 billion dollars to stem cell search. This money was used to create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. UCI has received $17 million thus far, tied for third in the state.
“This money has been used for research labs and training programs,” Hofstadter said. “It has really helped UCI.” Addressing the issue of whether or not researchers could just use adult stem cells for research because they are legal, Hofstadter called the difference between the two as “apples and oranges.”
Citing the promise for many areas of research and therapy, Hofstadter emphasized that given time and proper funding, this new area of science could be of enormous benefit to humans.
“To cut ourselves off from any of it,” she said, “would be foolish.”