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article imageOp-Ed: Stem cell superheroes and the limits of our biology Special

By E. Paul Zehr     Oct 4, 2014 in Science
Ever thought about having the powers or abilities of a superhero? We can improve our abilities by training and effort, but enhancing the human condition really has biological limits. What if we could exceed the constraints of our biology?
Discussing questions like the one above was the focus of a recent Café Scientifique talk held at the Hard Rock Café in Toronto and sponsored by the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine. I was fortunate to share the stage with Richard Pound (former secretary and president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, VP of the International Olympic Committee), Bartha Knoppers (lawyer, ethics expert, professor at McGill University), and Peter Zandstra (stem cell bioengineer at the University of Toronto). The provocative discussion and contributions from the audience members got me thinking more about issues of science and human performance.
Stem cells have the fascinating capacity to become many cell types and figure largely during tissue growth and repair. Because of their “regenerative” capacities, stem cells have received lots of attention for use in therapies to treat disease. This application in the field of “regenerative medicine” was super-boosted by the discover in 2006 that some adult cells could be genetically “repurposed” or “reprogrammed” to become stem cells known as “induced pluripotent stem cells.”
Based on this capacity, stem cells have been pitched as the superheroes of science and medical breakthroughs. Lawrence Burns wrote a paper in 2009 entitled “You are our only hope: Trading metaphorical magic bullets for stem cell ‘superheroes’” in the journal Theoretical and Medical Bioethics. Burns wrote that “…hoped-for stem cell cures and the researchers who will create them are like comic book heroes who use their unique supernatural powers to rid the world of evil.”
Although this is a bit of hyperbole, this link to superheroes and extreme ability fits well with my own approach to science communication using pop-culture icons. Stem cells have been suggested to be useful in everything from Crohn’s disease, baldness, wound healing, deafness, to spinal cord injury and stroke. A major initiative now is to use stem cells to regrow heart organ tissue.
It’s staggering to consider what was set in motion by the discovery of Canadian scientists Jim Till, Ernest McCulloch and AJ Becker. Their 1963 paper in Nature with the obscure title of “Cytological demonstration of the clonal nature of spleen colonies derived from transplanted mouse marrow cells” spawned an immense and ever growing field of study.
Since the early discoveries, stem cell research and biomedical applications continue to expand at break-neck pace. A non-trivial problem with stem cells is getting them to first become the cell type you need and then to get them to possibly form something useful. In 2011, Mototsugu Eiraku, Yoshiki Sasai and colleagues at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe Japan published a paper “Self-organizing optic-cup morphogenesis in three-dimensional culture” in the journal Nature. Hidden in that title was an amazing advance.
Yoshiki Sasai is the lead professor in the RIKEN group and he has been working for over 20 years trying to get embryonic stem cells from the mouse to form organs — all by themselves. He tried initially with brain tissue but he has been working on the perfect “mix” or “recipe” to get these stem cells to form eyes.
This recipe included the stem cells themselves, a kind of “fertilizer mix” of the protein laminin and growth factors. There was little initial surprise when the cells clumped together to form round shapes that became hollowed-out spheres. This is a common growth outcome of stem cells in vitro (in the dish). What was not common was the fact that the growth continued to diversify and become more sophisticated.
After about a week the spheres began to look more like goblets and two cell layers formed. Just like in your real eye an inner pigmented layer and an inner layer of retinal neurons developed. These “optic cups” are the developmental precursors to the retina. This represents a major proof of principle confirmation on stem cell application in organ development.
While Yoshiki and his group had finally succeeded in this project, there are some big challenges in usefully applying stem cell therapies. These challenges remain whether we are thinking about using stem cells for treating disease or for altering and enhancing healthy humans towards super human.
Consider a simpler natural process that happens to all of us, like muscle damage. After high load activity during muscle lengthening when walking down hill, can stimulate activation of a normally “dormant” undifferentiated muscle cell. These “satellite cells” were discovered over 50 years ago by Alexander Mauro and Bernard Katz. These cells can be fully activated to regenerate damaged muscle tissue and participate in the normal and innate process of hypertrophy that gives increased strength. But what if you could use these stem cells to enhance recovery and strength in someone who considered themselves “weaker” but not medically compromised?
This brings us to the issue of the acceptable limits around human performance capacity and abilities. Now the concept of human performance ranges from rehabilitation to super-human (literally meant as above “normal”) function. There are in fact transitions across categories from weakest, where we rehabilitate and restore, to super-normal, where we would enhance and amplify.
Most seem comfortable with the rehabilitation concept, but what about going from a person’s inherent level of ability to some higher or stronger ability level? Where it’s not a compensation for a deficit but a full-on amplification. Silvia Camporesi calls this the difference between therapeutic application versus enhancement. This is essentially asking “what if you could change the way your body worked even though it works quite well already?”
Although we aren’t technologically ready or perhaps morally willing to create super-humans right now, human enhancement and amplification is on the horizon. I think we should spend a little time now trying to figure out where we are going and if we should be going there. An important point moving forward is to determine when an amplification take us beyond the accepted range of “natural” human ability?
In sports this is the clear territory of doping and doping infractions. Whether we agree or disagree about what should be allowed it’s pretty clear that there are established rules in sports and the World Anti-Doping Agency. But what about for life in general, where there are essentially no rules about what is acceptable “normal” function?
Through our increasing application of technology we inch towards the advances and applications that could fundamentally change our species. Until now we haven't really needed a rule set defining acceptable function because we lacked the ability to make such sweeping and powerful changes to our biology. In the realms of both science and science fiction, though, things are changing. In a Captain Marvel story from June 2013, Kelly Sue DeConnick wrote that “…stem cell therapy, robotic prosthetics, face transplants — it’s all the stuff of science fiction. ‘Impossible’ is being phased out…”
Impossible simply describes things we cannot do — for now. Of course, "now" has a short shelf-life.
E. Paul Zehr, PhD (neuroscience) is professor, author, and martial artist at the University of Victoria where he is Director of the Centre for Biomedical Research and head of the Rehabilitation Neuroscience Laboratory. He is passionate about the popularization of science using pop-culture icons like superheroes as foils for human achievement and ability. Paul’s recent pop-sci books include BECOMING BATMAN: THE POSSIBILITY OF A SUPERHERO (2008), INVENTING IRON MAN: THE POSSIBILITY OF A HUMAN MACHINE (2011), and PROJECT SUPERHERO (2014).
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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