For years th eissue of stem cell research has divided even the pro life community, and the bioethical concerns about the destruction of embryonic stem cells--and the attendant human cloning (even for therapeutic purposes) have slowed the pace of research on stem cells.
The New York Times is reporting this morning that a new technique using skin cells may be a breakthrough that avoids the bioethical concerns altogether:
Two teams of scientists are reporting today that they turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo — a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.
All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.
The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary.
Researchers and ethicists not involved in the findings say the work should reshape the stem cell field. At some time in the near future, they said, today’s debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot.
“Everyone was waiting for this day to come,” said the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “You should have a solution here that will address the moral objections that have been percolating for years,” he added.
The two independent teams, from Japan and Wisconsin, note that their method also creates stem cells that genetically match the donor without having to resort to the controversial step of cloning. If stem cells are used to make replacement cells and tissues for patients, it would be invaluable to have genetically matched cells because they would not be rejected by the immune system. Even more important, scientists say, is that genetically matched cells from patients will enable them to study complex diseases, like Alzheimer’s, in the lab.
Read the full report here.