BOOM – Debate Time!! & more

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Themes of the last fortnight have been the stem cell breakthrough, art & science collaborations and new peanut allergy therapies.

BOOM! Debate Time!!!

It’s being hailed as a major breakthrough and could have immediate impact – stem cells appear to be very easy to make. The research was done by Haruko Obokata at the RIKEN Center, Japan and slashes the time it takes to make a stem cell to about half an hour where the previous record had been closer to two weeks. The proviso is that so far it’s only been successfully tested in mice.

Obokata first considered the possibility when she noticed that cells under stress, such as acidic conditions, shrink and start to look like stem cells. Further tests showed that they were stem cells, but it took five years for her to convince fellow researchers. Watch the BBC video to catch a glimpse of the young researcher soaring to overnight fame.

So, what now?!? A recalibration is needed as a raft of questions requires hasty consideration. The discovery is likely to accelerate the development of regenerative medicine exponentially, so how should the health industries react? When is it okay to use stem cells for medical purposes? How about for cosmetics? The discovery also instantly sweeps away the ethical problem of making stem cells from embryos and so further shortens the time it will take for new treatments to become available. Where are the boundaries of personalised medicine? How far do we want to go? How far is ethically acceptable? An editorial in New Scientist also points out that the research opens the door to crazy mavericks: Obokata’s cells are more like ‘totipotent’ stems cells than pluripotent stem cells because they can form a placenta and so are effectively small embryos – cloning just became as easy as IVF!

The questions need to be thought through, properly framed, and then taken to the public and discussed and discussed and further discussed. Everyone is likely to agree that personalised stem cells should be used in newly feasible treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases, but how would we feel about the commercial cloning of livestock? Should there be any restriction on cosmetic usage? Are there implications for private medicine that need to be thought through or should the breakthrough be left to unimpeded exploitation by market forces? Citizen juries and deliberative polling would provide answers to these crucial questions and need to be set up now. Although Obokata’s technique has not yet been demonstrated to work for human cells, these looming debates need to be put to the public at some point anyway, and might need answers sooner than we’re currently prepared for.

Art & Science

Perhaps new art science collaborations will contribute to foregrounding the stem cell issue. In the meantime, there have been plenty of other such collaborations in the news over the past few weeks to enjoy. The Republic of the Moon exhibition at the Oxo Tower on the South Bank drew to a close last weekend after collectively imagining what human occupation of our largest satellite would look like. Stand out exhibits were Leonid Tishkov’s Private Moon in which the artist battles with the loneliness and isolation that future moon inhabitants might feel, and Katie Paterson’s pieces, which took the opposite position by considering how we’ll transfer information, and ultimately our music and culture to a lunar settlement.

Renée Webster pointed to the latest chemistry creations in her Sceptical Chymist blog post and fresh art science collaborations are surely on the way after a soapbox session at Imperial College. The event is likely to herald new Artifact projects from the creative meeting of minds of students from Imperial College and the Royal College of Art. Perhaps one day they’ll be displayed at the Wellcome Collection where the current exhibition, Foreign Bodies, is the result of art science undertakings around the world. Kenya, Malawi, Thailand, Vietnam, South Africa and the UK contributed to a show that not only opens the visitor’s mind but has thrown open national boundaries as well. The most charming exhibit came from Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki from Kenya who have set up an installation of a living room laboratory that encourages viewers to don a decorated white coat and have their picture taken alongside the microscope. Perhaps the most thought provoking pieces comes from Vietnam’s Lêna Bùi, whose pictures and videos explore the point-of-contact differences between animals and humans alongside their behavioural similarities. Check out the exhibition before it closes in mid-March.

The Wellcome Collection exhibition doesn’t have a contribution from the USA, but there’s plenty currently going on there anyway. Chemistry posters are pouring out of Minnesota so get one sent over if you’ve got the wall space, and if you happen to be in Texas anytime in the next week, pop in on the Impressi exhibition at the Art Science Gallery where six artists have used a number of different printing techniques to express the history and wonder of science. Ele Willoughby’s picture of Schrödinger’s Cat is thermochromatic and so changes colour with temperature (although we assume temperature change has no bearing on the outcome of Schrödinger’s thought experiment). There’s also a beautiful work by Jen Schmitt who has worked with over 100 printmakers from seven different countries and 29 states to pull together a stunningly original periodic table.

Peanut allergy therapy

The number of sufferers from peanut allergy has doubled over the last few decades and now affects more than 1 in 70 people in the UK. Although the problem is becoming more widespread, efforts to cure it just took a step forward when an experiment on 99 children in Cambridge showed that many sufferers can build up their peanut tolerance over time. In fact, up to 91% of participants reacted well to the treatment that fed them just 2mg of peanut on the first day, then doubled the dosage every two weeks. By the end of the treatment, successful participants could take 5-10 peanuts a day without suffering any allergic reaction.

Injection therapy had been used previously but, following a patient death from anaphylaxis during a clinical trial, this method was sidelined. The new successful trials not only help with a potential cure, they also advance understanding of why these allergic reactions happen in the first place. In a similar study from Stanford School of Medicine, patients were tested three months after undergoing the trials to see if they had retained tolerance. Some had and some hadn’t but it was interesting to note that all those who had retained tolerance had fewer methyl groups attached to their FOXP3 gene, suggesting that expression of this gene may be responsible for the allergy. It also suggests that this type of therapy effects an epigenetic change in the patient and so is a prime target for further epigenetic research.

As any clinician knows, prevention is better than cure and other strategies include making sure couples that may be genetically sensitive to peanuts avoid eating them during pregnancy and take steps to prevent their baby being exposed to them during the first three years. The field is moving forward, but eradicating the allergy altogether may still be a tough nut to crack.

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