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Gene Therapy, IPS Stem Cells, and Will Smith

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A commentary in the JournalScience yesterday is very important.  Entitled, A History Lesson for Stem Cells, it discusses the huge problems seen in clinical trials for gene therapy in the late 1990’s and the author wonders if we’re making the same mistakes by rushing forward with IPS cells. IPS cells involve inserting new genes to “re-program” “regular: (somatic) body cells into stem cells.  I’m not sure why you’d want to do this because the body has stem cells you can tap, but we’re doing it anyway.  However, what this writer in Science brings up is that the risks with these stem cell types are tremendous.  We already have stem cells where the science is far more mature and these are much more ready for daily clinical use- the patient’s own adult stem cells.  There’s just one problem with autologous (the patient’s own) adult stem cells (A-ASC’s), they don’t fit the big pharma business model really well.  IPS are a big pharma boon.  You can patent these genes easily, take donor skin cells for example, “manufacture” these reprogrammed stem cells in a bioreactor, you can even put little bar codes and a logo on the cells (on that last part, maybe not, but it make one day be possible).

I bring up Will Smith for two reasons.  The first is that the movie listed above is a great watch.  It’s a remake of the Charelton Heston film “Omega Man”, which is an adaption of the book “Legend”.  The second reason is that the movie is about a gene therapy experiment gone very wrong.  The inserted genes initially kill cancer then kill almost everyone else.  It also begs the point, with a limited understanding of exactly how genes work, especially between people (say between the donor of the genes and the host), why are we considering using IPS cells when adult stem cells in patient’s bodies are readily available and a much more mature technology?  While one day IPS cells may produce much more potent cells, reprogramming genes is not something anybody should be taking lightly.

In summary, great movie, scary technology with great potential (IPS cells).  Let’s stop letting the big pharma business model dictate what types of treatments get investigated and pushed.  I agree with the guy from Science.

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