THE TIMES, monday, jan. 15, 2001
Stem cell discovery reverses time
BY NIGEL HAWKES, HEALTH EDITOR
A researcher based in Britain claims to have achieved the biological
equivalent of reversing time. She says that she has perfected a method of
creating stem cells from adult cells, bypassing the ethical dilemma of
"therapeutic cloning" which recently divided the House of Commons.
Although Parliament voted in favour of research into therapeutic cloning,
many people remain uneasy about creating embryos solely for use as a source
of spare parts.
If Ilham Abuljadayel's claims are verified, treatments for a wide variety of
diseases such as leukaemia, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease may
be transformed. Not only does her method produce a supply of healthy cells
from the patient's own blood, but it generates far more cells, more quickly,
than alternative methods, and without raising ethical dilemmas.
So unlikely does the claim seem to many biologists that she has found it
impossible to have it published in leading journals. But now, she says, it
has been replicated by one of the world's leading contract research
companies, Covance, and a company has been set up to market the idea.
Stem cells are the forerunners of the mature cells that make up the organs
of the body. They are "pluripotent", that is, they have within them the
capacity to develop into many different types of cell - brain, muscle or
blood, for example. The simplest source of a stem cell is a developing
embryo, but until now it has been thought impossible to re-programme a fully
developed adult cell and create a stem cell. That is what Dr Abuljadayel
says that she can do.
Born in Saudi Arabia and educated at King's College London, she went back to
her native country to work as an immunologist. She made her discovery by
accident. She was trying to kill white blood cells by using a particular
antibody when she forgot to add one ingredient to the mixture.
The result was not dead cells, but cells that had been transformed into stem
cells. She calls the process retrodifferentiation: a reversal of the normal
process by which immature stem cells differentiate to become mature adult
Since the discovery she has worked to convince others that it is real. She
has used a laboratory in the department of physiology in Cambridge and
presented a seminar there before Christmas.
One leading scientist familiar with her work, Professor Adrian Newland of
the Royal London Hospital Medical School, said that he had repeated her
experiments with the same results.
"It's fascinating, but there could be other explanations for what is going
on," he said. "My own work suggests that it isn't possible to reverse the
process of differentiation, but I have repeated her work and got similar
results. I think more research needs to be done to eliminate other possible
explanations. As it stands, it could be amazing, or it could be
The first clinical application of the technique could be in treating
Dr Abuljadayel says that blood would be taken from the patient and treated
to create a population of new stem cells, a process that takes only a few
The patient would then be treated with drugs or radiation to destroy the
bone marrow cells and kill the cancer, before repopulating the bone marrow
with cells generated from the stem cells.
Dr Abuljadayel's husband, Ghazi Dhout, who is president of Tristem, the
Dublin-based company set up to exploit the discovery, says that a big
advantage is that a huge volume of cells can be generated.
He says that the first trials, on individual patients, might start in the
next six months.The company plans to seek partners among the big drug and
biotech companies to develop the business. The invention is patented.
A cure for leukaemia may be possible with the discovery of an immune cell
that can seek and destroy infected cells. The development was announced by
researchers at London's Hammersmith Hospital and the Imperial College of
Medicine, who have spent six years investigating the disease.
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