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Message from the MGH

A new era for stem cell research, by Peter L. Slavin and David F. Torchiana.

Spring 2009
test tube, MGH

Stockbyte/Getty Images

Certain boundaries that we thought were there really aren’t, and it may be possible to overcome problems we thought could never be solved,” says Konrad Hochedlinger, an investigator at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He’s talking about stem cells, addressing progress in this field of basic research as recounted in “The Other Stem Cells.” Hochedlinger is a leader in an emerging branch of work that involves induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), adult cells altered to revert to their earliest developmental stage—and then, potentially, to serve therapeutic or diagnostic purposes.

Much of the excitement about iPS cells relates to their possible use as an alternative to embryonic stem cells. Research on embryonic cells had been constrained by a ban on National Institutes of Health funding for work involving all but a handful of cell lines derived before Aug. 9, 2001—too few to encompass the genetic diversity that dictates human development and disease. The ban created an absurd situation in which labs had to have separate areas and equipment for research on federally approved cell lines and for work on lines supported by other funding.

On March 9, President Barack Obama signed an executive order lifting that restriction and freeing scientists to apply for federal funding to conduct research on hundreds of revealing stem cell lines made with better, more consistent protocols than their older counterparts. Many of the cell lines bear genetic markers of deadly diseases, and they offer precise models that let scientists watch those disorders develop in a petri dish, witnessing what makes certain cells go awry and then testing possible approaches for addressing the disease process.

Researchers are also using iPS cells to model diseases. Indeed, much work on the two kinds of stem cells is proceeding along parallel tracks. But there are crucial differences between iPS and embryonic stem cells that could affect potential applications (iPS cells, for example, sidestep the ethical questions posed by embryonic stem cells but are harder to create in the quantities required). With the federal funding ban no longer an issue, scientists can pursue research on both cell types wherever it leads, using knowledge gleaned from one branch to inform work on the other. And while direct benefits to patients may be years or decades away, the field of stem cell research offers unique insights into the biology of human disease that cannot be attained in any other way.

Peter L. Slavin, M.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital
David F. Torchiana, M.D.
CEO and Chairman
Massachusetts General Physicians
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