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A Cell For All Seasons
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The Story of the Stem Cell
24 & 31 December 2003 9.00-9.30pm

It's been called "the most important cell ever discovered", because the stem cell can turn into any other cell in the body.

As the UK becomes the world centre for research into this subject, Geoff Watts tells the story of the rise and rise of the stem cell and its potential to cure all ills.

MRI scan
MRI scan of (left) a healthy brain, and a that of a Parkinson sufferer.
Could stem cells be used to treat such degenerative disorders effectively?

More and more of us are suffering from incurable diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's in which our nervous systems are degenerating.

Stem cells offer a lifeline for these patients, as they can be turned into replacement neurons to be transplanted into diseased brains.

What's so remarkable about these cells is that they can be coaxed into becoming any cell in the body. They could potentially be used to treat such things as diabetes heart disease.

But this research raises huge ethical issues.  The source of the stem cells - early embryos - is distasteful to some. President Bush has allowed only limited public research funds to be spent in this field.

This two part series tells the story of the rapid and remarkable development of the science, from the first isolation of embryonic stem cells in 1998 to the first human experiments.

In the beginning

Like many scientific revolutions it started quietly. In 1998 James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin announced that he'd isolated stem cells from embryos.

With chemical manipulation they could form any other cell in the body. Interest from the outside world increased when John Gearhart at Johns Hopkins University grew a set of cells from the gonads which suggested that therapeutic cloning was possible.  By 2001 a team from Wisconsin reckoned they could produce an inexhaustible supply of blood cells.

This first programme reveals how in just 5 years a science can grow so rapidly and how it comes to be controlled.

Listen again Listen again to Programme 1

Into the future
Teeth, nerves, muscle, bone…you name it and someone now is making it out of stem cells. How close is the research to delivering treatments?

And will the find that stem cells lurk in adults get round the tricky problems of extracting the material from embryos?

Or will it all turn out to be too good to be true and we'll learn that there are too many side effects to make stem cell therapy safe? 

The second part explores the precarious future of stem cell therapy and research. 

Listen again Listen again to Programme 2
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