Under The Microscope: Hype or hope?

Are Scientists Crying Wolf?

IT IS INCREASINGLY difficult to distinguish between hype and hope, with each new headline promising amazing progress in genetics and cell biology. We will soon be able, they proclaim, to replace any organ - growing a human heart in the lab is just a decade or two away. Advances in handling cells taken from human embryos means they can be engineered to create any body structure required, so providing a means of curing illnesses like Parkinson's.

And matters just get worse when such claims are coupled with genetic sensationalism which frightens and titillates with Frankenstein-like fantasies. Take, for example the widely shown picture of a mouse with a human ear growing on its back. It was recently shown on BBC's Tomorrow's World, which should know better as it isn't a human ear at all but a bit of artificial material shaped like a human ear that has been placed under the skin of the mouse for no good reason, other than publicity. These claims may get the venture capitalists to put their money into the biotech firms that promote these stories. But they may also, in the long run, lead to a serious public mistrust of scientists.

So how realistic are these claims? A group from the University of Wisconsin is the first to proclaim success in culturing (growing in the laboratory) human embryonic stem cells, which are obtained from early human embryos. The human body develops from just a small number of special cells - probably less than 30 - in the early embryo that are set aside for that purpose. The rest of the cells at that early stage go on to form the placenta and other structures that protect and nourish the developing embryo. These 30 or so special cells give rise to every cell in our body, from our skin to the neurons in our brain, but at this early stage their fate is not yet determined. They could develop into a muscle or a neuron, and all possibilities are open to them. The identity they acquire will mainly be the result of signals received from neighbouring cells.

The recent excitement is due to the Wisconsin scientists' ability to obtain large numbers of these multi-potent human cells in the laboratory, and to manipulate their development. Given the right nutrients, the cells happily multiply and seem to be immortal - they go on multiplying without any sign of ageing. If the cells in the dish are exposed to particular chemical treatments then their behaviour is altered and they can give rise to several cell types including muscle, neuron and cartilage. So these cells could be transplanted into individuals suffering from diseases that result from the absence of certain cells: Parkinson's patients, for example, are missing certain neurons in the brain, and those with juvenile diabetes lack the cells that make insulin. It may also be possible to repair the damage from heart attacks by introducing heart muscle cells.

At this stage, very little is known about the signals required to get the embryonic stem cells to do what the scientists want them to. Another major problem is the rejection by the immune system of implanted cells. In the future, it may be possible to modify the cells' genetic constitution so that they are not treated as foreign. Unless this is done, it would be necessary to make a cloned embryo for every individual from which to obtain the stem cells - but where would the human eggs come from?

Growing whole organs like kidneys or hearts from these cells is currently no more than a dream - the technical problems are enormous. Nevertheless, there are promising attempts at tissue engineering - growing bone or cartilage cells on artificial scaffolds which can then be used for the repair of bones, the scaffold eventually dissolving away. And sheets of cultured skin cells have long been used for burns.

I do hope that all this optimism does not turn out to be the "cold fusion" of biology.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own
    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England