Seeing what sticks to the science wall

I sat down earlier on today and did something I haven’t done for a while: I read the paper. Now, I’ll be honest, the only times I ever used to regularly read the paper was when the Guardian still did their ‘Life’ supplement, and when I wanted to read the comics.* But I was saddened to see that the paper had almost no science articles.

This shit will not fly!

So when I saw an article about stem cells being used to treat MS, I snatched at it, and read it all the way through. Then I read it again.

Then I put it down to poor science reporting. I’m no monster, I understand that science reporters have a lot of research to go through, and a short time in which to write an article. It results in some sub par writing, but it’s better than no science reporting at all.

And when I saw a longer article on the BBC, I thought “Great!” and leapt in. I then realised that it wasn’t the journalist’s fault for bad writing; it was the treatment that seemed stupid.

For non-medics like myself who don’t understand the human body, MS is damage to the myelin sheaths of the nerves.** What they’re doing in these trials is injecting MS patients with stem cells, on the assumption that they might end up in the brain and begin repairing the damage. I shit you not – to quote the aforementioned BBC article:

Researchers will collect stem cells from the bone marrow of patients, grow them in the laboratory and then re-inject them into their blood.

The stem cells will make their way to the brain where it is hoped that they will repair the damage caused by MS.

Is that a good way to do science? Really? Because that sounds an awful lot like they’re stumped for ideas. Like they’re just doing stuff, and seeing what happens. MS is essentially tissue damage, like a bruise (it’s a lot more than that, but bear with me). You wouldn’t inject a person with stem cells on the offchance that the cells might find their way to the bruise on your arm, or the scratch on your forehead.

Fair enough, they have “some evidence that these cells might be able to repair damaged tissue.” But that really seems too flimsy for them to be doing Europe wide trials. It just looks like they’re desperately clutching at straws.

* Oh, the comics. Although newspaper ones are still not as good as Private Eye’s.

** Any techies here who don’t “get” biology? Yeah, essentially the body’s electrical wiring is losing its insulation. There, now you understand MS in the most simplistic manner imaginable without using cuddly toys to represent axons.

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Posted on July 31, 2011, in GLOOP and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Ah, stem cells are extremely experimental still as I (and possibly Phoebe?) did a whole module on them in third year. They are one of the only hopes we have to cure – as in completely reverse – something that is currently incurable, like degenerative disease such as MS, Parkinsons etc. Stem cells have the ability to constantly self renew as well as turn into specific tissue. As hazy as that article sounds (and I agree it doesn’t sound particularly good) I seem to remember that certain tissue types can make their way to where they are suppose to be in the body….maybe. But trails are extremely important although ethically controversial too. But stem cells have the potential to be medically revolutionary, but there’s still a long way to go.

    Anyway, my homepage is this http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science_and_environment/ which occasionally contains some interesting news, which the newspapers don’t always include 🙂 Happy reading!

  2. Thank you for the link, but I already have that on RSS feed. That’s where I got the original link from, even, so no worries about that.

    Also, I get your point about stem cells being revolutionary and ground-breaking. I still think that just injecting people with stem cells seems a little unscientific.

    I am, however, more than happy to be proven wrong!

  3. This piqued my interest little bit so I went to the original article and read the abstract (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422(09)70017-1/fulltext#).

    Looks to me like they treated the stem cells with cyclophosphamide, which (after a bit of reading on wiki) is a good treatment for MS, in that it specifically targets autoimmune damaged cells and it penetrates the brain barrier way better than most other drugs, so it at least gets to the right area (http://tan.sagepub.com/content/2/6/357.abstract)

    I’m only speculating here (I can’t get my hands on the whole article thanks to a lack of university support until october), but I know that one way to get stem cells to the right area is to attatch them to/prime them with a drug that will go to the area you want. In this case, to MS damaged cells. So this may be what they’ve done here. Even if they haven’t, I can’t imagine that they’ve just injected in the cells and hoped for the best, they’ve probably ‘trained’ the cells in one way or another, using various brain/spinal cord markers (for the non-bio people… postage stamps are a good analogy : P) in the cell culture, or something else . They used to do trials where they just injected them in and followed where they went, but I don’t think it would be allowed now without very good cause.

    Anyway, just a speculation, but I thought I’d offer my barely-professional 2 cents worth.

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