Saturday, 5 February 2011

"It's a long road but it's very exciting."

The punishment of Prometheus, depicted by the 19th century painter Gustave Moreau

That was the conclusion reached during a public discussion on stem cell research, the subject of Budleigh Salterton's second science forum which took place yesterday.

The speakers were Dr Lesley Chow, from Florida, post-doctoral research associate in the Stevens' Group at the Institute of Biomechanical Engineering at Imperial College, London; Dr Christine Hauskeller, from Germany, Deputy Director at Egenis, the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society at the University of Exeter ; and Dr Timothy Allsopp, Head of External Research for Pfizer Regenerative Medicine

It was that myth of Prometheus shown in the above painting which drove home to me the importance of stem research as the possible cure of so many common ailments. That and the striking image of the salamander growing new tissue to replace an amputated limb. Both slides were used by Dr Chow to show the audience how cells in both the human and the animal body work, "how they talk to each other" in a way which has inspired the new and fast-growing branch of healing known as Regenerative Medicine.

Doctors have long known that the liver can regenerate itself

Of course, the point of showing us the painting was that the knowledge of such healing is hardly new. Poor Prometheus. Chained to a rock, his liver devoured by the eagle sent every day as a punishment by Zeus his story stands as a tantalising suggestion that the Ancient Greeks may have known that even such vital organs have the ability to grow again. "The eagle never went without his breakfast," as we were told.

So one fascinating question posed by the forum was "Can human beings be like the salamander?" using materials such as bone marrow, placenta and umbilical cord blood. And will today's healers ever understand completely how a cell "knows" what it's doing when it helps to mend a cut finger?

No definite answers but a thought-provoking performance by all three speakers with Dr Chow who has a background in materials science and engineering, believing that stem cell research is an interdisciplinary field that requires communication between biologists, chemists and engineers. There's no doubt, we learnt, that "stem cells have enormous potential in regenerative medicine but extensive research is necessary for success."

Ethical issues were addressed by Dr Hauskeller. Is it right, for example, as one audience member asked, that stem cell research should benefit only a wealthy minority of the world's population while diseases like HIV and malaria are rampant in the developing world? Dr Allsopp gave an insight into the work that pharmaceutical companies like his are doing in research to find cures for ailments such as age related macular degeneration, inflammatory bowel disease and Type 1 diabetes.

The event had been organised by Professor Peter Revell, himself an eminent figure in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine research who is also a resident of Budleigh Salterton. For a small town like ours to welcome such an impressive line-up of speakers was quite an achievement.

But where, I thought, looking at the overwhelmingly mature audience, were the future researchers into stem cells? As a former teacher I wondered whether a day out from school allowing them to take part in this excellent event might have been possible. And whether it might have been for them the very type of life-changing event that makes a career a passion.

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