Chimeric Monkeys and Translational Research
Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) announced their production of the first primate chimeric offspring. Named Roku, Hex and Chimero, pics of the babies have gone viral. The monkeys were made from the stem cells of two embryos. The article will be published in Cell and is available online for a fee.
This is interesting science and according to the reports, the following was learned as a result of the research.
1. "The cells never fuse, but they stay together and work together to form tissues and organs," according to Shoukhrat Mitalipov (see below).
2. Stem cells in primates have different functions from stem cells in rodents. In rodents, totipotent stem cells and pluripotent stem cells can be combined to make embryos. In primates only totipotent stem cells will accomplish this.
3. Stem cells grown in culture may not be as potent as naturally occurring one in the organism.
According to the press release:
"This is an important development - not because anyone would develop human chimeras - but because it points out a key distinction between species and between different kind of stem cells that will impact our understanding of stem cells and their future potential in regenerative medicine," explained Shoukhrat Mitalipov, Ph.D., an associate scientist in the Division of Reproductive and Developmental Sciences at ONPRC. "Stem cell therapies hold great promise for replacing damaged nerve cells in those who have been paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury or for example, in replacing dopamine-producing cells in Parkinson's patients who lose these brain cells resulting in disease. As we move stem cell therapies from the lab to clinics and from the mouse to humans, we need to understand what these cells do and what they can't do and also how cell function can differ in species."
Mitalipov also stated: "If we want to move stem cell therapies from the lab to clinics and from the mouse to humans, we need to understand what these primate cells can and can't do. We need to study them in humans, including human embryos."
As I have pointed out, there is a difference between interesting biological science and science that is likely to result in cures and treatments for diseases that afflict humans. The chimeric monkeys are very interesting science but they are not going to cure cancer or Parkinson’s. This research is an example of basic research and such research has an abysmal track record of helping ill humans.(Crowley 2003; Greek and Greek 2010) The fact that the research illustrated differences among species in exactly what stem cells do, is more support for my position that very small differences between complex systems make extrapolation at higher levels or organization impossible.
In 2011, two reports addressed the use of nonhuman primates in research: the Institute of Medicine (IOM) report and the Bateson Review. Our critique of the Bateson Review is available here and an analysis of the IOM report should be submitted to a journal within a month or two. What both the Bateson Review and IOM report have in common is a complete disregard for the Theory of Evolution. Selling the chimeric monkeys to society as vital for future advances that will cure diseases like Parkinson’s is disingenuous. The monkeys are cute but cuteness does not count when evaluating a modality for viability. If society wants to see cute animal pictures there are less costly ways to accomplish this.
Unfortunately, this leads me to the main point of this blog. The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) is, as of last week, the new addition to the NIH. Although controversial, NIH director Francis Collins was able to start the new branch, in part, by claiming that it would speed up the development of new drugs. Collins: “Patients suffering from debilitating and life threatening diseases do not have the luxury to wait the 13 years it currently takes to translate new scientific discoveries into treatments.”(Waldman 2012) Thirteen years is rather optimistic, as a vast, vast majority of basic research never results in anything that helps patients.
Translational medicine is certainly a buzzword in medical research these days. Briefly, most basic research has not translated into treatments for patients. This is the case despite the fact that a vast majority of NIH grants go to basic research and must be considered in light of the fact that over 50% of NIH grants go to animal-based basic research.(Greek and Greek 2010) Moreover, the last two decades have seen a huge increase in NIH funding and hence in grant money to basic reseachers. Therefore, people in politics and elsewhere are attempting to change this obvious waste of resources, but the way they are going about it will be self-defeating. My concern with NCATS is that it will turn into exactly what the rest of the NIH currently is, namely an organization that funds animal-based research over all other options. Much of what is currently being called translational research is simply animal-based basic research that has been relabeled as translational research. The reason for this is simple. The medical university system in the US depends on the money from animal-based research. Universities receive billions of dollars in overhead from animal-based projects, which they can use for whatever they wish. They form a vast lobby that demands the gravy train continue. Pictures of cute monkeys help.
Translational research works for research from the basic sciences of physics and chemistry where sound scientific ideas and principles merely need to be developed. It does not work for developing perpetual motions machines or extrapolating drug and disease response between species.
Crowley, W. F., Jr. 2003. Translation of basic research into useful treatments: how often does it occur? Am J Med 114 (6):503-5.
Greek, R., and J. Greek. 2010. Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable? Philos Ethics Humanit Med 5:14.
Waldman, Meredith. 2012. US translational-science centre gets under way. Nature Publishing Group 2012 [cited January 10 2012]. Available from http://www.nature.com/news/us-translational-science-centre-gets-under-way-1.9763.