Q. What is a stem cell and what have current developments allowed scientists to do?
A. A stem cell is a cell which is capable of self-renewal and can make many cells like itself. In addition, a stem cell has the capability to differentiate and mature into several types of differentiated cells. The number of types of cells it differentiates into allows us to call it “unipotent”, “bipotent”, “multipotent”, “pluripotent” or “totipotent”. The difference between pluripotent and totipotent is the ability to contribute to the germ line (make sperm or oogonia).
The fundamental breakthroughs in the field have been this possibility of making totipotent cells from all individuals using a small subset of factors. This breakthrough was what led to the award of the nobel prize to Dr. [John] Gurdon and Dr. [Shinya] Yamanaka barely 6 six years after the discovery.
Where is this field going in the future?
Since we can now do what was simply impossible before, this has opened up a vista of new possibilities. I often divide these into two applications. Discovering new small molecules for therapy, using stem-cell-derived cells from humans (this was very hard before) and cell-based therapy, where we can obtain cells from an individual and cure them and replace them in the same individual, thereby avoiding an immune suppression therapy that is required for all mismatched organs or tissue transplants.
Of course, now that one has unlimited supply of immune matched cells, one can now truly start considering making organs as well. All of this is not far in the future and indeed simpler organs have been made and transplanted successfully into individuals with success.
What are the current legal issues around stem cell research today?
The current issues around stem cells are really around who owns the cells, who owns the genetic information, and what privacy rights one has. I imagine in the extreme, one could harvest cells from a snip of skin or a buccal smear or a small amount of blood and make totipotent cells from them. These cells contain your entire genetic information and can be used (theoretically at least) to make a clone, all without your being aware of this.
So is there a misunderstanding in society about stem cell and genetic research?
No. Rather, there is a misunderstanding between what is theoretically possible and what is being done today. While theoretically one can clone a human, the reality is that it will take too long and will be too expensive to do with current technology. People take advantage of this gap in understanding to make false promises and sell hope.
Why did you step down as director of the CRM and what’s next for you?
I stepped down as the director of CRM because I wanted to make a difference quicker than the rate NIH wanted to move within its budgetary constraints. I am working with several groups who seem to have the same sense of urgency, or at least believe like I do that the future is here today and we need to make the effort to reduce the possible to a practical routine.
Dr. Mahendra Rao
Dr. Mahendra Rao is a stem cell biologist, researcher, and the former founding director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. A professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, Dr. Rao has worked extensively in the field of stem cell research. Prior to his work at the NIH, Dr. Rao served as Vice President of Regenerative Medicine at the Life Technologies Corporation, and co-founded Q Therapeutics, a neural stem cell research company in Utah. Dr. Rao holds an M.D. from Bombay University and a PhD in developmental neurobiology from the California Institute of Technology. This spring, Dr. Rao stepped down from his role as director at the NIH to join the The New York Stem Cell Foundation’s Research Institute.