June 6, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

No More Need for Embryonic Stem Cells?

Harvesting human eggs and creating embryos for embryonic stem cells may soon become a thing of the past.  Nature Science Update reported that four teams have verified that normal skin cells in mice can be reprogrammed to act identically to embryonic stem cells.
    The technique, called “induced pluripotent stem cell” (iPS), holds promise to end the ethically-questionable practice of cloning human embryos then killing them for their stem cells.  “If researchers succeed, it will make it relatively easy to produce cells that seem indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells, and that are genetically matched to individual patients,” wrote David Cyranoski.
    This new practice not only overcomes the ethical questions: it is easier to do, and matches the cells to the patient.  Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary.  “There’s no trick, no magic,” commented Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who pioneered the technique.  Another researcher was so impressed, he commented, “It’s unbelievable, just amazing.”  He compared the accomplishment to the cloning of Dolly the sheep: “It’s that type of accomplishment.”
    What remains is to test the technique with human cells.  It also remains to be seen if the cells can be transplanted back into the patient for therapeutic purposes.  At least for now, biologists may have a safer and ethically favorable alternative for studying stem cells in the lab.  The Washington Post printed a follow-up story on June 7 with reaction from ethicists, religious leaders and pro-ES stem cell advocates.  The announcement coincided with Congress’s second vote to approve funding for embryonic stem cell research, reported Focus on the Family, expected to be vetoed again by the President.  The news line at Family Research Council reminded its readers that scientists had recently used adult stem cells to manufacture insulin – an important step in finding a cure for diabetes (see Bioresearch Online).
    Already, it appears proponents of ES research are defending their turf.  In Science the same week, Constance Holden ended her report, “Hochedlinger and others hasten to point out that research needs to progress on all fronts because all systems ‘have their limitations.’”

Keep an eye on this story and on the pro-ES advocates.  The article quoted one who said that research on embryonic stem cells remains “absolutely essential.”  Why?  It is still too early to tell, but if all barriers are removed for use of iPS instead of ES, the reaction of the embryonic stem cell advocates will be instructive.  Will the Hollywood celebrities still seek air time for tear-jerking commercials, when no law will be required to overcome ethical barriers that no longer exist?  Will the $3 billion California stem cell institute switch to the newer, safer, ethical iPS?  Will Big Science lobbyists cease their rhetoric about how ethical objections to ES will leave America scientifically behind the rest of the world?  Stay tuned.

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