Figuring out which topics to include in this magazine can be a bit of a balancing act. We want to deliver compelling, useful content — but sometimes what's interesting isn't exactly relevant. As far as the balancing act goes, stem cells have been in our editorial limbo for years now. They're interesting, they're important to biotech — but as far as research goes, they just never quite made it onto the systems biology landscape.
That's all changed, thanks to breakthrough work with epigenomics, ChIP-chip and ChIP-seq, and microRNAs, as Jeanene Swanson reports in this month's cover story. Following up promising research that appeared to convert adult skin cells into pluripotent stem cells, it was genomics researchers who answered the call to assess whether these new cells were truly pluripotent in the way that real embryonic stem cells are. Check out the article on p. 34 for more on how that work was done, as well as looming challenges in the field, such as banking enough cells to be able to have a clinical impact.
Stem cells aren't just interesting scientifically. In late March, John Reed, president and CEO of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, visited GT to tell us more about his organization (you can check out a profile of Burnham on p. 24). What emerged from our conversation was the incredible story of the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, a partnership among Burnham, The Scripps Research Institute, the Salk Institute, and the University of California, San Diego. The institutions are contributing land and money, as well as jointly applying for a large grant from the state of California, to build a stem cell research center — all without involving any federal funds. It's a reaction to the current state of stem cell funding rules in the US, of course, but what's unnerving is the idea that these institutions are so concerned about future policy problems that they're actively shielding research from the government.
"Regardless of what happens at the federal level, whoever's president, whatever," Reed says, "there'll always be safe zones to do this type of research." It's unspeakably frustrating that researchers have to guard against political whims and interference from the very federal agencies that are meant to be the financial foundation of the scientific enterprise. (And mildly terrifying to think that someone could actually be worse at science policy than George Bush.) Let's hope this winds up being a smart but ultimately unnecessary precaution.