Weird Science: Stem Cells, Breast Milk, and Testicles

The stem cell controversy. It’s not going away. Whether or not you believe it should is not important. The main thing is that the benefits of stem cell research are vast. Therapies using stem cells could cure everything from acute spinal cord injuries to Alzheimer’s disease to Sickle cell anemia and many other horrendous maladies. In other words, it behooves us to figure out how to get around the controversy.

In case you’ve been living under the proverbial rock, I’ll update you. Stem cells aren’t the problem. Where we get them is. The best source is the human embryo. Preferably about five days after conception.

In some folks’ eyes, harvesting human embryos, even the ones leftover from artificial insemination projects and now scheduled to be destroyed, is akin to murder. I personally don’t believe that, but I can imagine how horrified I would be if I did. I can understand the passion.

At any rate because of the restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research, scientists are frantically searching for other types of stem cells. Doing a quick search on the Internet, you’ll discover that stem cells are being harvested from mice, pigs, human umbilical cords, bone marrow, among other places. There’s much work being done to try and get regular cells to turn into stem cells. Anything to keep the work going without the use of human embryos.

I wonder about these other sources. Mice and pigs? Can they actually be used to discover cures for human ailments? Umbilical cords, okay, no problem there, but bone marrow? Who’s donating?

The real problem with using non-embryonic stem cells is that nothing is as effective as the original stem cells–the ones that are by definition going to turn into every type of body cell.

How many different types of cells a particular candidate can turn into is called “Potency.” There are five levels of potency, starting with the lowest level–unipotent. A unipotent cell can only turn into a cell like itself. Not very potent. The highest level cells are called totipotent. Just under them are the pluripotent cells. These are the rock stars of the stem cell world. They can produce, that is, differentiate into, cells of any type. They’ll give rise to any kind of tissue needed for reconstruction or replacement. You need a new liver, pancreas, or spinal cord? Get yourself a packet of pluripotent cells and you’ll be all set. Human embryonic stem cells are pluripotent.

The search goes on every day for other pluripotents. Sources that can be used without infringing on someone’s world view. No stone is left unturned. Funny thing about turning over stones: you can’t believe what you’ll find. A couple of strange possibilities considered lately are human breast milk and adult human testicles.

Back in 2008, researches in Germany and the UK began looking at stem cells harvested from “routine biopsies of men’s testicles.” Everyone was agog. A great potential source! But then in 2009 it was discovered that yes, human testes can be used to gather stem cells, but they’re not as potent as embryonic stem cells. Such are the ravages of the scientific method. The world was abuzz with the testicle/stem cell story in 2008, it’s all but gone from the scene in 2011.

Also in 2008, the Australians were hard at it. Seems they had isolated stem cells from breast milk. Apparently these cells exhibit the same pluripotency as embryonic stem cells. Hurrah!

As is always the case, the jury is still out on this. There is work to be done to determine just how plentiful these cells are. And as noted in the article, there are skeptics. Are these cells actually embryonic-like or have they been coaxed into exhibiting high potency?

I imagine controversy. I envision signs in the hospitals urging women to switch to formula for their babies because “America needs the milk!” or some sick thing like that. And as the article points out, we don’t know yet what those stem cells are doing in the breast milk. Quite possibly they are used for the developing baby, maybe providing for some sort of regenerative tissue the infant needs. Maybe the stem cells are one of the reasons why breast milk is the best thing to be feeding your baby and so let’s just leave it where it’s needed most.

We’ll figure it out. And however we figure it out, I’m sure it will be weird.

Sue Lange

Sue Lange’s latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. Get your copy or read a couple of free chapters right here at Book View Cafe.

Originally posted on December 2, 2011 at Sue Lange’s Singularity Watch blog.

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Weird Science: Stem Cells, Breast Milk, and Testicles — 3 Comments

  1. The claims about the wonderful wonderfulness of embryonic stem cells vs. adult stem cells would be rather more plausible if they weren’t entirely theoretical. In real life, adult stem cells are leading to far more actual results.

  2. Wouldn’t it be useful if the folk who believed in one thing stopped trying to force their POV on those folk who had a different POV! … and vice versa … What a notion!

  3. What I love about science is that it isn’t actually about what someone believes — but about what proves out to be true under rigorous and controlled testing and re-testing. A break from our opinion world is much welcome.

    I remember the first time I learned about cell differentiation. I think it was in college (which means if I learned it in high school bio, I obviously didn’t pay attention 🙂

    It struck me as the coolest thing in the world that one cell could multiply itself and then start communicating with cells near it, turning them into heart cells and skin cells, etc.

    I hope the research continues, even if it has to happen outside of America. That’s the best way to find out what makes a cell totipotent, and if that ability can ever be turned back on (the ultimate aim of stem cell research, I think).

    Can I admit that I hope breast milk doesn’t pan out? When I nursed my children, I learned that a woman can produce milk for a long time after her child is born. But not everyone wants to nurse, and “squeeze one for your country” just does not have a comforting ring to it 🙂

    Great info!