Reprogrammed skin cells

21 November 2007

Curious timing, isn’t it. On the weekend, Dolly creator Ian Wilmut announces he is abandoning cloning for reprogramming to create embryonic stem cells. On Tuesday, two teams announce that they have created ESC-like cells from human skin cells by adding various combinations of genes. 

So was Telegraph journalist Roger Highfield trying to beat the competition by running a related story? Or was Ian Wilmut attempting to steal his colleagues’ thunder ahead of the real event? (It worked. British TV news covered the Wilmut story but devoted little time to the latest news.)

I have to say that the thing that makes me least excited about the new method of creating ESC-like cells is that Wilmut is turning his attention to it. There are some brilliant scientists who never get lucky. There are some very poor scientists who get very lucky. I have no doubt which category Wilmut falls in.

Personalities (or the lack thereof) aside, I’m still can’t get very excited about a technique that generates cells that turn into teratomas when injected into mice. (Teratomas are very nasty cancers containing a mixture of cell types, sometimes even teeth.)

Regardless of whether you get them from cloning or reprogramming, cells with ESC properties are potentially very dangerous. My view is that the only way to make them safe will be to engineer a suicide gene that can be triggered, say, by a certain antibiotic. Having to trigger the switch will, of course, be a major bummer if you spent years recuperating from a stroke thanks to stem cells injected into the brain, only for them all to have to be destroyed. Still, it’s a risk worth taking.

The really interesting question is who will get the chance to take it. The success rate of the reprogramming techniques is pretty low and even if it can be dramatically improved, and made safe, it’s not going to become cheap anytime soon. Even in the unlikely event that any treatments based on this hit the clinic within a decade or so, it is likely to remain a (very) rich person’s treatment for some decades to come. That is, after it has been tested on poor people, of course. That will pose serious issues for public health systems like the UK’s.