A leap forward in stem cell research

Are we closer to removing the controversy from stem cell research?

In what is seen as a major advance for regenerative medicine, three independent research teams say they have created embryonic stem cells – without having to destroy an embryo to do it.

Stem cells, which have the potential to develop into many different cell types, could theoretically act as a sort of repair system for ailing and aging bodies. Embryonic stem cells can give rise to all types of tissue and could be used, for example, for transplant therapies in people who are paralyzed or have disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

Up until now scientists have needed to destroy embryos in order to make stem cells, causing research to be hampered by thorny ethical objections. But now researchers from both the US and Japan may have found a way to side-step the controversy.

Three separate experiments, as reported in the respected scientific journals Nature and Cell Stem Cell, were successful in transforming skin cells in mice into embryonic stem cells which they then used to produce baby mice.

“Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary,” Shinya Yamanka of Kyoto University in Japan, who pioneered the technique that was replicated by the U.S. teams, was quoted by CanWest.

The new method of stem cell generation consists of a simple bio-chemical technique of inserting four genes called fibroblasts into mouse skin cells. The altered cells then behave similarly to embryonic stem cells in lab tests.

“I think it’s one of the most exciting things that has come out about embryonic stem cells, period,” Dr. Asa Abeliovich of Columbia University in New York (who did not participate in the research) told the Associated Press. “It’s very convincing that it’s real.”

Still a long way to go
The new technique, while thought to be an impressive leap forward in stem cell research, still has significant hurdles – primarily that it could cause cancer in patients receiving the therapy.

20 per cent of the mice produced from the reprogrammed cells developed cancer, according to Yamanka and his team. But researchers say they think that in time the risk can be eliminated.

Meanwhile, cell lines taken from human embryos remain essential to researchers striving to develop new human therapies, scientists say.

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