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Could breakthrough end political debate over stem cells?

skin cells
Photo courtesy of Junying Yu, University of Wisconsin
The scientific team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison created genetic modifications in skin cells (above) to induce the cells into what scientists call a pluripotent state — a condition that is essentially the same as that of embryonic stem cells.


Blockbuster news from Wisconsin and Japan today appears to pack the potential to end America’s political and ethical battle over destroying embryos to extract their stem cells.

“This could take stem cell research out of the abortion debate,” said Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center For Bioethics at the University of Minnesota.

First, the news. Scientists genetically reprogrammed ordinary human skin cells to create the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. No embryos or human eggs were involved. In other words, these new-found cells could realize the healing potential that is expected for stem cells without the controversy that has stifled research on the embryonic version.

Two competing research teams reported the finding simultaneously. One team, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, works in a laboratory led by James Thomson, the scientist who set off the controversy in 1998 by first isolating lines of stem cells from human embryos.

The university in Madison announced the latest finding today, and a report appeared in this week’s issue of the journal Science. Thomson’s colleague, Junying Yu, is the lead scientist on the paper.

The other team was led by Shinya Yamanaka of the University of Kyoto, who made headlines recently with breakthroughs in mouse stem cells. His latest research is described this week in the journal Cell, with an overview article in Nature’s online news.

James Thomson
Photo by Jeff Miller, UW
 James Thomson

‘Scientific milestone’
It remains to be seen whether the new discoveries can, indeed, give rise to every cell type in the human body. But Nature said Yamanaka’s cells have been able to form neurons and cardiac muscle cells that eventually started beating.

Stem cell scientists were positively giddy over the breakthrough.

“This work represents a tremendous scientific milestone — the biological equivalent of the Wright Brothers’ first airplane,” Dr. Robert Lanza, chief science officer of Advanced Cell Technology, told the Associated Press.

But most scientists have yet to sort through the evidence in the reports. They will scramble over the next few months to try replicating the findings and assessing the implications for other research involving cells from embryos.

“It’s going to completely change the field,” Thomson predicted in the University’s news release.

Beyond the ethical debate, the discovery also appears to make huge strides toward enabling people to grow replacements for defective or damaged parts of their own bodies. Since the cells can be made from an individual’s own skin, “immune rejection should not be a problem,” Thomson said.

Junying Yu
Photo by Bryce Richter, UW
 Junying Yu

Key questions
Debate over embryonic stem cells has raged for years from church pulpits to Capitol Hill. Since 2001, the United States has banned federal funding for research on all but a few lines of the cells. Last year, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have lifted the ban, saying “it crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect.”

Nothing in the research reported this week should disqualify these new studies from federal funding, said Kahn, who has written and studied extensively on the subject.

“It looks like all of the problems that people have worried about … have started to fall away,” Kahn said.

The key questions now are how effective the cells will be, how far they can go in replacing every kind of bodily tissue and whether they are safe for human therapies. One serious concern scientists will need to address is that the cells could cause dangerous tumors.

Prominent critics of research on embryos seemed to agree that this new discovery defuses the stem cell debate.

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Associated Press that the new work is “a very significant breakthrough in finding morally unproblematic alternatives to cloning … I think this is something that would be readily acceptable to Catholics.”

Does this mean politicians will have one less point for combat in 2008?

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Rodgers Adams on 11/20/2007 - 05:16 pm.

    It was my impression that the NewsHour report indicated that these cells, as stem cells, might have the potential to form an embryo under certain circumstances. If some stage in the process creates a group of cells “with the potential to become human life,” does that really sidestep the debate? It was my impression that, since embryonic stem cells destined to be discarded aren’t going to become human beings, the opponents of embryonic stem cell research hang their argument on the claim that these are, nevertheless, “potential human life.” That same argument might apply here. Did I misunderstand the NewsHour report? Or are claims that the debate has ended premature?

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