Q&A: Stemming the tide of misinformation
As director of outreach experiences at the Morgridge Institute for Research in Madison, Wisconsin, Nirupama Shevde spreads the word about stem cells. Nature Outlook finds out what she has to say.
How did the Morgridge institute become such a major centre for training stem-cell scientists?
Our stem-cell training programme was started in 2003 by James Thomson
[the University of Wisconsin biologist who derived the first human
embryonic stem (ES) cell lines in 1998] through WiCell Research
Institute. At first we focused only on human ES cells. Then, in 2007,
the Thomson lab and Shinya Yamanaka's lab at Kyoto University in Japan
described the generation of human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.
As soon as this technology was available, a lot of scientists from
biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies started attending the course.
They had not been very enthusiastic about using human ES cells, and
even though iPS cells were the new kid on the block, they felt more
comfortable with this model. The programme is still under Thomson's
guidance, and any time a new technology comes out of his lab, we have
the opportunity to incorporate it.
What are the scientists who attend the course using iPS cells for?
Most of them want to do in vitro
work. We don't ask them what they do, because a lot of that is
proprietary. Some companies have existing stem-cell-related technology
that they want to improve, whereas others are interested in generating
iPS cells for disease models or to make specialized cells, such as nerve
or heart muscle cells, and then use those specialized cells to test
potential compounds in drug discovery or toxicity testing.
saw biopharmaceutical company Geron's decision to suspend its human ES
cell clinical programme in November as a blow to the field — what is
It was sad that Geron had to end the trial. But the
fact that it was able to take neuronal cells made from human ES cells
to a stage where the US Food and Drug Administration felt comfortable
allowing the company to put them in patients' bodies is a huge
accomplishment. Other companies will come forward to do similar trials.
For example, Advanced Cell Technology is conducting two trials related
to dry age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt's macular
dystrophy. Maybe I'm an eternal optimist, but I don't think Geron's
efforts were a waste at all.
Will iPS cells ever be a true surrogate for human ES cells?
seeking to understand human development will keep using human ES cells,
which are the gold standard. The iPS cells are not optimal, because
they were reprogrammed from adult somatic cells. Whether human ES cells
make the impact in regenerative medicine that we want them to is
anybody's guess, but we are learning so much by using them. The iPS
cells will probably play a significant but different role. The classic
example of the advantage of iPS cells is the disease-in-a-dish model: a
patient with Parkinson's disease goes in for a skin biopsy, we take
their skin cells and reprogram them, and now we have a stem-cell line
that mimics Parkinson's. That's tremendous progress.
Do you ever face overt hostility about human ES cell research?
have encountered a lot of questions and confusion, which is usually
because of misinformation or incomplete information. I've gone to many
churches to give presentations, and they invited me because they want to
know more. I'm very respectful of people's opinions. All I can do is
try to give the scientific facts. Some people tell me they were under
the impression that abortions were performed to get these cells, and I
inform them that this is not the case. These balls of cells, or
blastocysts, came from in vitro fertilization procedures and were
donated by the parents. Once something is donated or assigned for
research, it can never go back into the human body. If they were not
used, that would be a waste. After getting that information, if people
are still against human ES cell research, I respect that. I am a
Christian, and I tell people that when I made the transition from my old
research to using human ES cells, it wasn't a snap decision. I thought
about it a lot before deciding it was okay for me. I tell people this is
a decision they have to make for themselves, and they're fine with
Should researchers using human ES cells engage the public and policymakers more aggressively?
think we have an obligation to educate people, but I also think we
should remain scientists and not engage in politics. Showing significant
changes in treatments and cures will help people to come around. People
joke that I don't have to sell what I do because I believe in it so
much. I just open my mouth, and people understand my passion and my
sincere desire to make a difference, and maybe they will listen because
of that. I have learned that if I am sincere and passionate about
offering scientific facts and reasons as to why I am OK with human ES
cell research, they are more open minded and willing to listen.