Early Research Is Like Yeast

Stem cells without destroying embryos? From the Wall Street Journal:

In the quest to treat difficult diseases, researchers have created human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos or using hard-to-get eggs. The technique may prove to be easier, cheaper, and more ethically appealing than an alternative approach that requires cloning.

Two separate teams of researchers say they have sidestepped the cloning method and reprogrammed mature human cells into a primordial, embryonic-like state. Those cells were then transformed into other tissue types, such as heart cells. The long-term hope is that such freshly-created tissue may, for example, be used to heal a heart-attack patient.

Apparently, this shows much promise.

But I have two questions.

1) How do undifferentiated cells that divide and specialize easily (stem cells) differ from undifferentiated cells that divide wildly (cancer)? Is it merely a matter of “controlled” division”? And if so, how close to uncontrolled division is the process?

2) How close are we to understanding the process of specializing the undifferentiated cells?

I’d like to get excited about this apparent breakthrough, but it seems a bit early.

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