Iran investing in stem cells

Thirty years after the toppling of the Shah in Iran, the nation is undergoing another revolution of sorts. Iran is investing heavily in stem cell research, and despite researchers working with limited access to laboratory equipment and resources, the country may emerge as a scientific force to be reckoned with in the stem cell field. Image: flickr/youngrobvEven with their limited infrastructure, Iranian scientists have managed to isolate linkurl:six human;http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/jour

By | February 23, 2009

Thirty years after the toppling of the Shah in Iran, the nation is undergoing another revolution of sorts. Iran is investing heavily in stem cell research, and despite researchers working with limited access to laboratory equipment and resources, the country may emerge as a scientific force to be reckoned with in the stem cell field.
Image: flickr/youngrobv
Even with their limited infrastructure, Iranian scientists have managed to isolate linkurl:six human;http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118558886/abstract and linkurl:eight mouse;http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1290/1543-706X(2004)040%3C0076%3ACCDFEO%3E2.0.CO%3B2 embryonic stem cell (ESC) lines over the past decade, and then successfully turn these cells into functional pancreatic, heart, splenic, and liver cells. "It's remarkable that they were able to do what they've done," linkurl:Konrad Hochedlinger;http://www.hms.harvard.edu/dms/bbs/fac/Hochedlinger.html of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital told __The Scientist__. "They are clearly catching up." Unlike many western countries, where religious wranglings have hindered the progress of ESC research, in Iran and other Islamic countries research involving embryos is relatively uncontroversial. Islamic law states that full human life begins only after the "ensoulment" of the fetus, which is defined in the Quran as 120 days after conception. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, even publicly endorsed human embryo research in 2002. ESC research is "definitely an area where Iran could become a player, given the funding restrictions in the US," linkurl:Ali Khademhosseini,;http://mit.edu/aliklab a biomedical engineer at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology in Cambridge, Mass., who was born in Iran and studies the field in his native country, told __The Scientist__. Because Iran got into the game earlier than neighboring countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are also starting to embrace stem cell technologies, "the stem cell science in Iran is pretty much more advanced than in any other country in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel." Iran was the 10th country in the world to successfully linkurl:isolate human ESCs;http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118776082/abstract in 2003, and the fifth country to linkurl:reprogram human skin cells;http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8705160987 to an embryonic-like state to create so-called induced pluripotent stem cells last year. Other landmark achievements include linkurl:coaxing human ESCs to become mature, insulin-producing cells;http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118558905/abstract in 2004, linkurl:cloning the country's first sheep;http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/aug/07/iran.genetics in 2006, and conducting the linkurl:world's first human ESC proteomics study;http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/112650331/abstract in 2006. Most of these studies took place at Iran's leading stem cell research center, the linkurl:Royan Institute;http://www.royaninstitute.org/ in Tehran. Named after the Farsi word for embryo, the Royan Institute was originally established in 1991 as an infertility clinic. In 1998 it was converted into a cell-based research center, and it now covers basic and applied research in six different fields: stem cells, embryology, genetics, epidemiology, gynecology and andrology. Other Iranian research institutes are also actively engaged in studying stem cells, including the 34 members of the linkurl:Iranian Molecular Medicine Network;http://www.irmolmednet.ir/ and the linkurl:Shaheed Beheshti University of Medical Sciences;http://ms.sbmu.ac.ir/ in Tehran. The Iranian government is a big supporter of stem cell research, but the lack of a federally operated funding agency akin to the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation has created a spotty and inconsistent funding patchwork. The government is investing more in science -- government spending increased from 0.2% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) in 1990 to 0.65% in 2005 -- but this still lags behind most developed countries such as the US, which sets aside almost 3% of its GDP for research and development. Continuing political turmoil between Iran and the western world is also impeding the progress of Iranian scientists. Political and economic sanctions make it extremely difficult for researchers to get their hands on many supplies and equipment that come from other parts of the world, namely the US. "If you're trying to get a big piece of equipment, clearly parts will be made in United States," said Khademhosseini. Thus, researchers have turned to homemade contraptions and a black market for lab equipment, which have driven up prices and often compromised quality. Sanctions and economic difficulties have also led to an Iranian "brain drain" of some of the country's best and brightest. And for those who do stay, it can be difficult to obtain travel visas to attend international conferences. Thus, to encourage foreign stem cell researchers to come to Iran, the Royan Institute plays host to the country's largest annual scientific event -- the annual linkurl:Royan International Twin Congress,;http://www.royaninstitute.org/cmsen/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=157&Itemid=161 a joint meeting on reproductive medicine and stem cell biology -- which attracts more than 2,000 participants from around the world each year. In August 2008, Hochedlinger attended the Congress, where he toured the Royan's facilities. "I was surprised to see how they derived their first embryonic stem cell lines with very simple tools," he told __The Scientist__. "It's very low-tech equipment compared to the technology we have in the United States and in Europe." Because of the sanctions, the Royan scientists couldn't purchase standard cell culture incubators. So they built an enclosed oven with water pans for humidifiers and tubes to pump in carbon dioxide. In the US, "we just buy it from a vendor," said Hochedlinger. "They have to build it from scratch." "I was shocked by how future looking [the Iranians] were with their science and medicine," said linkurl:Sarah Berga,;http://www.gynob.emory.edu/bio_berga_sarah.cfm a reproductive endocrinologist at Emory University in Atlanta who attended the Royan Congress from 2005 to 2007 and plans to go again this year. "This is not a country with a lot of material resources, but they've really made a commitment to fundamental science." Iran's aggressive push into stem cell research is a "combination of bottom up and top down," noted Khademhosseini. It's partly fueled by leaders in the government, but it has also been driven by scientists urging politicians to support research with immense medical potential. Iran has "strategically positioned its investment in a way that it would potentially make a maximum amount of impact," Khademhosseini said. "And it's definitely broader than just the embryo aspect. A lot of the hype that we hear is due to embryonic stem cells, but stem cells as a whole is a pretty hot area."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Disease prevention in Islamic countries;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55116/
[November 2008]*linkurl:Cloning in Iran;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/24298/
[11th August 2006]*linkurl:US societies reverse rules on Iranians;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22786/
[4th October 2005]

Comments

Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

February 26, 2009

Iran has an excellent socialized medicine system. And they are very involved in advanced applications. No fundamentalism problems for most branches of science in Iran. \n\nThis isn't news. Iran has had stem cell banks for 20 years.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 26, 2009

Stem cell research, nano technology, etc.\n\nCheck it out\nhttp://www.bibijon.org/iranimage/\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 26, 2009

Ultimate glory is if some scientist of islamic background discovers that the prophet or the koran are real inisatier of all scientific research,stem cell included The paki scientist didnt do much for iranians,but there is always Alha,the prophet and islam
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 28, 2009

So often we hear negative news and are given negative information about Iran. \n\nGood news is still news.\n\nThis is positive, and informs people that great things are happening in Iran, in spite of limited access to equipment. It's good to know what is happening around the world re stem cell research!\n\n\n\n

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