Diamond Blackfan anemia (DBA) has long been a disease waiting for a cure. First described in 1938 by Louis K. Diamond, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital and his mentor, Kenneth Blackfan, MD, the rare, severe blood disorder prevents the bone marrow from making enough red blood cells. It’s been linked to mutations affecting a variety of proteins in ribosomes, the cellular organelles that themselves build proteins. The first mutation was reported in 1999.
But scientists have been unable to connect the dots and turn that knowledge into new treatments for DBA. Steroids are still the mainstay of care, and they help only about half of patients. Some people eventually stop responding, and many are forced onto lifelong blood transfusions.
Researchers have tried for years to isolate and study patients’ blood stem cells, hoping to recapture the disease process and gather new therapeutic leads. Some blood stem cells have been isolated, but they’re very rare and can’t be replicated in enough numbers to be useful for research.
Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, first created in 2006 from donor skin cells, seemed to raise new hope. They can theoretically generate virtually any specialized cell, allowing scientists model a patient’s disease in a dish and test potential drugs.
There’s been just one hitch. “People quickly ran into problems with blood,” says hematology researcher Sergei Doulatov, PhD. “iPS cells have been hard to instruct when it comes to making blood cells.” …
In early 2014, controversy erupted when two papers in Nature indicated that exposing ordinary cells to stress—an acid bath or mechanical stress—could quickly and efficiently turn them into pluripotent stem cells, capable of developing into virtually all the tissues in the body.
The technique, called “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency,” or STAP, was lauded for its simplicity compared to other methods like nuclear transfer into egg cells or cellular reprogramming with a set of transcription factors.
A report this April rocked the scientific world: scientists in China reported editing the genomes of human embryos using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. It was a limited success: of 86 embryos injected with CRISPR/Cas9, only 71 survived and only 4 had their target gene successfully edited. The edits didn’t take in every cell, creating a mosaic pattern, and worse, unwanted DNA mutations were introduced.
“Their study should give pause to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes during [in vitro fertilization],” George Q. Daley, MD, PhD, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, told The New York Times. “This is an unsafe procedure and should not be practiced at this time, and perhaps never.”
As Daley detailed last week in his excellent presentation at Harvard Medical School’s Talks@12 series, the report reignited an ethical debate around tampering with life that’s hummed around genetic and stem cell research for decades. What the Chinese report adds is the theoretical capability of not just changing your genetic makeup, but changing the DNA you pass on to your children. …