Forging ahead in stem cell research


  • Lifestyle
  • Wednesday, 25 Feb 2015

Malaysia aims to keep up with the recent rapid global pace in the field.

Stem cell research has recently picked up speed again following encouraging trials in the last few years, and Malaysia aims to keep up with the global pace in both the research and regulatory aspects.

Dr Leong Chee Onn, head of the Centre for Cancer and Stem Cell Research at the International Medical University Malaysia, says the majority of research in Malaysia is focused on developing stem cells for therapeutic purposes.

“Most of the stem research can be described as ‘reverse engineering’ of the existing findings from other labs,” he says. (It’s worth considering that with the pace of development, many researchers may have entered the field only recently and are not experts yet.)

The Government has come up with a list of guidelines, including the Guidelines For Stem Cell Research and Therapy (2009), which regulate the type of research allowed in Malaysia; and the National Guidelines for Hemopoietic Stem Cell Therapy, which regulate the standard practice and procedural requirements for any stem cell transplantation.

“The guidelines so far cover comprehensively what is allowed and what is prohibited. They should be sufficient for the time being until further breakthroughs in the field which might render them irrelevant,” says Dr Leong, who also notes that these are guidelines, not law.

Just across the Causeway, tomorrow marks the start of a two-day conference on Clinical Applications of Stem Cells, where scientists will be looking at the translation of basic discoveries in the field into applications for regenerative medicine and cellular therapy, as well as how global regulatory agencies view these translational efforts.

“Events of this type are extremely important for developing ongoing partnerships and collaborations and networking is key to all of the events we organise,” says Paul Raggett. CEO of Select Biosciences South East Asia, which is hosting the conference together with the Singapore Bioimaging Consortium.

The vibrant discussions taking place within the stem cell research community should lay the groundwork for further development of the field in Malaysia.

Pertinent questions to be addressed at the conference relate to regulation of clinical uses of autologous adult stem cells, as well as safety and regulatory considerations in preclinical studies involving human-derived, cell-based therapeutics.

The root of stem cell research

From the moment sperm and egg cells fuse and a zygote is formed, our fates are set in motion with the continuous division of cells.

As each stage progresses from embryo to foetus to baby, the ball of cells multiplies – giving rise to lineages of increasingly specialised cell types.

The ordered composition of skin, nerve, muscle, bone and blood that make up our complex human form all arise from one master stock: embryonic stem cells.

These cells hold the most potential; they are pluripotent, able to give rise to several different cell types.

The more specialised a cell becomes, after successive rounds of differentiation, the more limited its future potential becomes.

For a long time, scientists have been interested in the potential clinical applications of embryonic stem cells. However, dreams of studying them in hopes of developing therapies to repair damaged tissue, or even growing new organs, were hampered by ethical concerns surrounding the destruction of embryos.

All that changed in 2006 when a Japanese scientist figured out how to turn back the genetic clock.

All cells, no matter where they are found in the body, possess the same genetic code.

What determines whether a cell looks and behaves like a nerve cell, or a pancreatic cell, or a skin cell is how its DNA is read and translated.

Adult cells, Shinya Yamanaka found, could be reprogrammed to revert to their pluripotent state through exposure to the correct mix of transcription factors (proteins that control which genes are switched on or off in the genome).

English biologist John Gurdon had demonstrated back in the 1960s that the specialisation of cells is reversible: frog eggs with the nucleus removed and replaced with one from the gut cells of a mature frog could still yield healthy tadpoles.

Four decades later, Yamanaka figured out how the underlying process worked, creating the world’s first induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell.

The two shared a Nobel Prize in 2012, and since then, the field of stem cell research has exploded.

The existence of iPS cells has enabled many researchers to bypass the ethical roadblocks imposed by embryonic stem cell research, which has contributed to the breakneck pace of stem cell-fuelled discoveries.

The revelation that mature cells do not have to be confined to their specialised states forever has fundamentally changed the field of cell biology and stem cell research, opening up new possibilities not just in how we treat disease, but how we study it.


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