The ‘New Age’ of Synthetic Stem Cell Organs
Surgeons at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden, successfully transplanted a synthetic trachea, or windpipe, constructed from the patient’s own stem cells last Friday—marking the first transplantation of a synthetic organ created from scratch. The 36-year-old patient, Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene, had a cancerous tumor in his airway and would have died without the transplant.
This new development in the application of adult stem cell technologies has quickly garnered international attention, as well as a great deal of excitement. A segment on ABC News described it as a process of “growing new body parts, growing new medical possibilities,” and asserted that “we are really standing of the brink of something brand new.” They also listed a slew of other organs that could one day be constructed synthetically from stem cells. Meanwhile, other media have also referred to the event as a “landmark” and a “milestone.” Even the stock markets have responded favorably: Shares for several research companies that conduct stem cell research jumped since Friday, one as high as 20 percent.
The seeming fulfillment of decades-old prophecies of the glories of stem cell research is certainly something to be excited about, but could this get overhyped?
In a 2008 article Jenny Kitzinger of Cardiff University described the various stages of “hype” that the stem cell research discourse experienced throughout the 2000s. One of the positive stages, referred to in her article as the “breakthrough” stage, is characterized by the use of “landmark” imagery, the perceived delivery of promises, and hyperbolic representations of the future—elements that all seem to be present in the discussion of the stem cell trachea phenomenon.
In some ways, ABC could be right in describing last week’s successful transplant as “the brink of something brand new,” or at least the next step in improving transplant patient outcomes. Since the synthetic trachea was constructed from Beyene’s own cells, the risk that his body will reject the organ is considered minimal if not nonexistent. The trachea was also created fairly quickly, eliminating his need to sign up for a long organ transplant waiting list. But all the hype about these successes might obscure the fact that it will take a long time for this type of trachea transplantation to become a widespread standard of care—if it ever does. Even more time will pass before these stem cell and tissue engineering technologies will be used to successfully create other, more complex organs.
Stem cell hype appears in other forms as well, especially in the specific context of embryonic stem cell research. In an article published by Science Progress earlier this year, bioethicist Arthur Caplan discussed the “hyped claim” that adult stem cells are just as useful, if not more useful, than embryonic stem cells in the interest of achieving goals in medicine. This type of rhetoric, which has little scientific backing, has been used by the antiembryonic stem cell research lobby, and was even adopted by the Bush administration, in the interest of justifying embryonic stem cell research restrictions.
Although the recent trachea transplant may serve to reinvigorate positive public interest in stem cell therapies and research, it seems that it could also be spun as a testament to the type of rhetoric Caplan described. Embryonic stem cells had no documented role in the creation of the synthetic trachea. Rather, the organ was constructed from Beyene’s own mesenchymal stem cells, a type of adult stem cell that originates in the bone marrow, as well as lining cells from his nose. As such, those who oppose embryonic stem cell research could, hypothetically, use this recent success to reify the idea that funding for embryonic stem cell research should be limited in the interest of funding other, allegedly more fruitful adult stem cell and tissue engineering research.
While all types of hype will abound, this trachea transplant should not be used to confuse people about the importance of pursuing both adult and embryonic stem cell research in the effort to advance stem cell technologies; success in one application of stem cell science is not an argument for ignoring the other. Nor should it be looked upon as an assured dawn of a new age. Rather, it is a testament to what can be accomplished through innovation and teamwork, and reminds us of the need to stay on the cutting edge of all kinds of stem cell research and other potential life-saving biotechnologies.
Michelle Spektor is an intern with Science Progress, and a rising senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
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