Researchers from Oxford and Cambridge universities have made a breakthrough in stem cell technology by discovering that mice can produce embryonic stem cells very similar to those found in human embryos.
The new findings attain significance as they may sweep away ethical concerns over embryo research, and help speed the development of treatments for incurable diseases.
According to researchers, the findings will make it easier to use mice and other animals to study human diseases, and can lead to new treatments for conditions such as diabetes and cystic fibrosis in as little as five years.
Scientists say that the breakthrough will help them understand how human embryonic stem cells work, although they will still need to use human cells at the stage of synthesising organs and tissues for use in humans.
However, ethicists say that any reduction in human embryonic stem cell research will be applauded.
'This would be greeted with much enthusiasm. We have always said that the move from animal-kind to human embryonic stem cells has gone too fast and animal research has never been properly explored,' the Daily Mail quoted Josephine Quintavalle of the pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics as saying.
It is believed that a steady supply of animal cells will lessen the need for stem cells taken from human embryos, a practice that is mired in controversy because harvesting the cells from embryos leads to their death.
Stem cells are master cells that can change into every type of tissue. They are seen as a 'repair kit' for the body, which can potentially replace the defective, dead and worn out cells behind conditions from diabetes to Alzheimer's.
The stem cells that the researchers had been deriving from mice so far were very different from those found in human embryos. But in two landmark pieces of research, carried out independently from one another, the researchers have managed to obtain mouse embryonic stem cells that are virtually similar to their human counterparts.
A report published in Nature magazine says when observed from a microscope, these cells look very similar to human cells. They also rely on the same proteins from growth as human cells.