Scientists Create Stem Cells Without Embryos

Researchers produce “pluripotent” stems cells from human skin cells, potentially removing ethical concerns for life-saving research.The battle over stem cell research is one of those rare scientific issues that has resonated in the political arena, pitting Democrats against Republicans and the Bush administration against many in the scientific community.

Until now, embryonic stem cells have only been available from human embryos. Many conservatives have opposed their use in research for many of the same ethical and religious reasons that they oppose abortion.

Stem cell research is on the cutting edge of new medical technology that potentially could provide new treatments and even cures for a variety of serious diseases, including heart attacks, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, spinal cord injuries and other killers.

Critics have feared that this very promise offered a new threat — that parents of an ailing child might have additional children so that the second child could be “mined” for his or her stem cells to treat the first.

In January, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) sponsored a bill that would have authorized federal funds for research using stem cells from excess embryos from fertility clinics that would ordinarily be discarded. President Bush vetoed the legislation, citing ethical arguments similar to those used in opposition to abortion — that the embryos are a form of human life.

The issue is indirectly involved in the proposed amendment to the Colorado Constitution that may be on the ballot in 2008. That amendment would extend rights to “any human being from the moment of fertilization.”

But new discoveries announced this morning may reduce the emotional resonance of the stem cell debate, while at the same time potentially depriving the Democrats of an issue for 2008 that has shown to be popular with voters.

A paper published in the journal Science this week says that two groups of researchers have been able to reprogram human skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells.

“The finding is not only a critical scientific accomplishment, but potentially remakes the tumultuous political and ethical landscape of stem cell biology as human embryos may no longer be needed to obtain the blank slate stem cells capable of becoming any of the 220 types of cells in the human body,” according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison news release. “Perfected, the new technique would bring stem cells within easy reach of many more scientists as they could be easily made in labs of moderate sophistication, and without the ethical and legal constraints that now hamper their use by scientists.”

According to Science:

“Such a recipe would not need human embryos or oocytes to generate patient-specific stem cells — and therefore could bypass the ethical and political debates that have surrounded the field for the past decade.”

James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and colleagues reprogrammed human skin cells by inserting four genes in to the cells, making them “pluripotent.” Pluripotency means that the cells have the potential to become any cell type in the body, without involving embryos.

Thomson says:

“I believe that these new results, while they don’t eliminate these ethical controversy, will reduce them. Over time, these new cells will be used by more and more labs.

“It doesn’t mean that human embryonic stem cells are not important, however. They would not have been derived without the work on human stem cells. But I do believe that the world has changed because of this research.”

The effects of this work may induce cells in the body to repair other cells in the body, for instance in the heart. Transplants, for instance, may be less necessary if cells in an organ can be induced to repair themselves through the use of these cells.

In related work, in 2006 a Japanese group was able to produce pluripotent cells in mice by inserting four genes into cells taken from their tails. This group recently announced that their technique works on human cells as well.

In addition, a team at the Oregon National Primate Research Center obtained embryonic stem cells from cloned primate embryos, “an advance that brings therapeutic cloning closer to reality for humans,” according to Science.

The University of Colorado last year received a $6 million gift from the Gates family to turn CU into a major national stem cell research center at the school’s Fitzsimmons campus.

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Dan Whipple

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