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Why are stem cells important?

The Tech asked Biology professor Richard A. Young to explain why stem cell research is important. In an e-mail, Young wrote:

“There is another important aspect of stem cell research that is not appreciated by the public, mostly because it is too technical. Much of human disease is due to embryonic regulatory processes gone wrong. That is, cancer and many other diseases involve inappropriate activation or repression of regulatory pathways that are engaged in embryonic cells during early development. So new understanding of embryonic pathways frequently gives new insights into human diseases.

“For example, using embryonic stem cells, we discovered (and reported in Cell this last April) how a master regulator of cellular proliferation — an oncogene called Myc — functions to control proliferation, and this has led to new efforts to develop a novel class of drugs against cancer here at MIT and at Harvard. As another example, Nature just published (advance online publication on Aug.18) an article from my lab reporting our discovery that gene control is connected to chromosome architecture, a fundamental discovery involving an apparatus that is mutated in a variety of developmental diseases.

“Embryonic stem cells are not only inherently valuable for revealing the secrets behind embryonic regulatory pathways, they are rapidly becoming the cellular workhorse behind much modern biological discovery. In most molecular biological studies, investigators need to grow populations of cells in order to obtain enough cellular material for the assays that we use. Because they grow like weeds, investigators have traditionally studied tumor cells because normal cells are quiescent, so they cannot be grown in adequate amounts for most molecular studies. Tumor cells are defective cells with badly damaged genomes, so they are a poor model system for understanding normal biology. Es cells are normal — they are fully functional cells with normal genomes that can give us insights into normal cell biology.”