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What is behind stem cells


Are scientists capable of creating an artificial body and doubling or tripling the length of our lives? How can stem cells save your life but also sometimes take it away? We discussed these and many other questions with Ph.D. biologist and inventor of the bioartificial liver device, professor Vyacheslav Ryabinin.


Russia 2045: At the end of 2010, the famous inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil announced that an artificial human body will be built by the year 2045. Better-functioning artificial organs will replace many of the current normal biological ones. What do you think: is that a possibility?


Vyacheslav Ryabinin: Artificial organs are being created in an attempt to extend patients’ lives until they can receive transplants of donor organs. Vigorous work on such projects is being done throughout the world, and a lot of success is being had. There are already prototypes of artificial hearts. They are not yet being implanted into people but rather carried on carts that move alongside the patient. Liver function is fulfilled by the well-known hemodialysis devices. In the U.S. such devices are being installed even in people’s homes.

The liver is without a doubt one of the most complex organs. Tens of thousands of chemical reactions take place inside it. And its central function—detoxication, or neutralization of various toxins—can already be reproduced. Many scientists, in Japan, in the U.S., have done work in that area.


Russia 2045: Is it possible to treat a terminally ill organ using cellular technologies?


V.R.: Interesting studies have been done on that. For instance, an extremely interesting approach has been taken in working with the pancreas at the National Scientific Center for Transplantology and Artificial Organs in Moscow. They transplant pancreatic cells of new-born rabbits into ill patients. In those studies, the insulin dosage needed by insulin-dependent diabetics decreases, and, most importantly, other effects of diabetes that are typically present even in patients undergoing insulin therapy do not develop. There is a whole range of effects that neutralize the complications in those beta cells.


Russia 2045: How much potential is there for using stem cells to help create artificial organs?


V.R.: Stem cells have a unique attribute: They transform into one or another tissue depending on the microenvironment they’re in. Stem cells received their name from their resemblance to the stem of a plant, out of which branches grow in different directions. Similarly, from stem cells you can create liver, blood or any other kind of cells. There is currently a lot of progress being made on a method of treatment based around implanting stem cells in people. The cells locate the affected organ on their own, make their way to it and begin to repair it.


Russia 2045: If you take the progress that has been made over the last 20 years . . .


V.R.: An enormous amount has been done!


Russia 2045: . . . and try to picture what the future holds, what kind of developments do you expect in this area over the next 20 years?


V.R.: Over the last 10 years, an enormous leap has been made—especially outside Russia. It has become possible to isolate stem cells of any specific type in bone marrow and, using special inductor-like mechanisms, steer their growth in one way or another. You can turn them into bone tissue, into cartilage, even into heart tissue. When such experiments were done in which “heart inductors” were present, stem cells gathered into a colony and began to produce the rhythm of a heartbeat.

In Russia we’ve been growing bone tissue from stem cells since the 1970s. They make cartilage at the Institute of Traumatology in Kurgan. At many laboratories they’ve learned how to grow artificial skin for treating burns, wounds and various other post-operative blemishes. It’s difficult even to predict how things will be 10 years from now. I see cellular technologies as being one of the areas with the most potential from the standpoint of creating bio-artificial systems of some kind.


Russia 2045: Do you think, when it comes down to it, that it’s possible to create an artificial body?


V.R.: The entire trajectory of scientific progress shows that that which we once considered impossible is becoming possible. Who could have imagined that hands and legs could begin to walk due to the firing of corresponding impulses? Progress is being made not at arithmetic but at exponential rates.


Russia 2045: Where do you think this progress will lead us?


V.R.: What is there that calms the heart?


Russia 2045: Yes. About 20 years from now.

V.R.: It will become possible to restore a person back to health after a serious injury. For example, after an injury to the spinal cord, a person is condemned to a vegetative state. But when you implant stem cells, 40-50% of people return to normal life.


Russia 2045: Despite the fact that the world has changed dramatically over the last 100 years, there are almost no major discoveries made in the world of science today. Investments are made not into fundamental research but into the development of technology that is in one way or another related to consumer culture. Incredible progress was made in telephony; the Internet appeared. But we are still not able to combat many serious illnesses, withstand radiation, or fly in outer space farther than the orbit of our own planet! Why is this so? What needs to be done in order for true innovation to take place?


V.R.: Kapitsa Senior once said that there’s nothing more beneficial than fundamental research. Everyone knows that. The basis of any innovation is fundamental research. But who is doing it? Scientists do it. And where do scientists come from? From universities. And right now the Law on Education that is being passed will, pardon the expression, castrate the entire education system, on both the levels of secondary and higher education.

Beginning this September, the number of people in my department is being cut in half. What do you need to know chemistry for? Let it go. But you can’t master biochemistry, pharmacology, and so on without chemistry. Everything is connected. The academic curricula for the study of human physiology, anatomy, foreign language, etc., are being significantly curtailed. Who decided that should happen? There is no architect. They did not include university presidents, let alone teaching staffs, in discussion of the law or in changes made to academic programs. But what budget savings they produced! Where will these innovations come from, though, without people who can generate ideas?


Russia 2045: We have an idea to create a scientific center that would bring together scientists to work on the project of creating an artificial human body. The first area of work for such a center would be extending the longevity of our body in the typical sense of the word. The second area of focus would be developing other ways to extend life. The overarching goal of the project would be to create an artificial body. How achievable do you think this goal is?


V.R.: I think that it’s interesting and quite realistic. If you acquire new innovations of some kind for the center and find investors, then of course there is sense in doing it.


Russia 2045: The integration of technologies into the world at large will inevitably spur the creation of a large number of as-of-yet unforeseeable secondary discoveries and technologies, possibly in new fields of science. Where do you think it would be best to build such a center?

V.R.: Only in a place where it will receive ongoing financing. We have quite a lot of talented people here. You can find both people who can generate ideas and people who are good at executing. So building such centers is absolutely a good thing. And Skolkovo also plays a positive role. It reminds me of the small science towns—conferences, discussions, and seminars are constantly being held there. The specialists interact, and everyone is together. You invent something, then go across the road where the grease monkeys work, and you say, “Vasya! Make me one of these little thingies!” Problems are solved a lot faster.

Communications infrastructure is also very important. After all, in the Russian Far East there are also wonderful scientific institutes, not to mention Tomsk, where the largest innovation hubs are located. But how do you communicate? It’s difficult!


Russia 2045: Would you be interested in working on that?


V.R.: I can happily answer questions, provide opinions on topics I’m knowledgeable about, and lend my expertise.


Russia 2045: The project will be called “2045”. We, on the one hand, have given ourselves a little spare time that will help to change civilization technologically, and on the other hand, the famous futurist Kurzweil indicates that year in his prediction, but from yet another perspective . . .


V.R.: No one will hold us responsible for that!


Russia 2045: And if we all end up living to be 200-300 years old?


V.R.: Then, of course, everything will have to be answered for!

Other author's articles:


Professor Vyacheslav Y.
Ph.D. in Biology, Inventor of the "Bioartificial liver" device

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