Stem cell scientists explore options
By Yevgeniy Sverdlik, CORRESPONDENT
Article Created: 02/13/2008 02:41:12 AM PST
SAN RAFAEL — Stem cell research offers the promise of finding cures for some of the most feared and intractable diseases known to man.
A panel of biologists made that case over the weekend to an audience of Bay Area university students, other scientists and members of the community.
Stanford University's Renee A. Reijo Pera, director of the Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Education, emphasized the importance of learning more about embryonic development at its earliest stages to realize the therapeutic potential of stem cells.
"It's important that we begin to really understand human development and how cell fate is determined," Pera said. "It's the essence of human embryonic stem cell biology."
Although scientists have learned how to create human embryonic stem cell lines, Pera said, they have yet to learn how to direct those stem cells to morph into specific types of cells that are needed to cure some of the diseases the technology promises to cure.
"Can we direct the fate of the cells?" Pera said. "In most cases, the answer is 'No, we can't do it exactly right.' But we actually are getting a lot closer."
The keynote speech was delivered by Gilberto R. Sambrano, head of the Training Grant Program at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The institute was created in 2004 as a result of state Proposition 71, which charged it with distributing $3 billion of state money for stem cell research.
One of the institute's goals is to develop tangible proof of the principle that transplanted cells derived from stem cells can be used to restore function for at least one disease, Sambrano said.
To address the uncertainty of this relatively new area in science and the amount of money being spent on it, Sambrano pointed to the optimistic mind-set scientists have about it.
"Like any research conducted, it is research and it is a question," Sambrano said. "Do we want to explore it or not, and if we don't explore it, what do we miss out? I guess, until we get there, we don't know. But I think that the potential for it as an enabling technology has excited scientists like nothing has in recent times."
Mary Khan of San Anselmo came to the conference, which was held at Dominican University of California in San Rafael, to learn how far stem cell research has come. Khan's husband suffers from kidney failure.
"My husband is a dialysis patient," Khan said, "and I am trying to research what I think is the only way someone can benefit and ever possibly get help for kidneys, which is to basically to re-grow and re-generate your kidney."
THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE