One Small, Small Step Toward Stem-Cell Nirvana

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Embryonic stem cells displayed in laboratory vials

We are all perfectly happy to accept the fact that Rome was not built in a day. So why, scientists wonder, do we cling so desperately to the idea that stem cell miracles are just around the corner?

Our stubborn conviction, of course, has nothing to do with intellect or the complex scientific calculus of cellular biology. It has to do with emotion, and our need to believe that cures or vaccines are imminent possibilities, just tantalizingly out of reach — rather than potential blips on a decades-long horizon.

This is the daunting public relations conundrum of the stem cell researcher: Encourage interest, but manage expectations carefully. The careful balancing act, which has become quite familiar this year, was in evidence again Tuesday when scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison announced they had successfully cultivated blood cells from embryonic stem cells.

This is good news, fascinating news: The development could, one day, lead to the mass production of blood for use in transplants or transfusions, blood that is totally indistinguishable from whatís coursing through our veins. We could all say good-bye to blood supply shortages and blood drive mobile units.

That happy possibility is real, but itís very much relegated to the future, emphasizes Terry Devitt, director of research communications for the University of Wisconsin. "We want to be careful not to raise false hopes," he says. "We need to perfect this technology — it will be at least five years before this has any clinical relevance."

In the meantime, of course, this development presents plenty of tantalizing possibilities to scientists smitten with the stem cell. "This research shows, for the first time," says Devitt, "that itís possible to direct embryonic stem cells down a particular developmental pathway — any developmental pathway — to become a product weíre familiar with and can use in a clinical setting: In this case, a blood cell."

That may not be enough to satisfy those of us hungry for insta-miracles, but itís more than enough to keep scientists plugging away in search of answers.