Stem cell technologies could be used to cure diseases and heal injuries within 10 years, a Japanese scientist who recently broke new ground in the field said Wednesday.
Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, whose team reported in November they reprogrammed human skin cells to be indistinguishable from stem cells taken from human embryos, said the new technology is so simple that many laboratories are competing to make further breakthroughs.
Yamanaka, meeting reporters in Tokyo, said it was a matter of time before such stem cell technology was used in hospitals.
"I can tell for some patients and for some diseases it may be not, like, 10 years, but for some diseases I can imagine it can take longer than 10 years," Yamanaka said.
"That depends on diseases and injuries. There's no single answer," he said.
Stem cells are primitive cells that eventually turn into any of the 220 different types of cells in the human body.
Stem cells offer enormous potential for curing and treating disease because it is hoped they can replace damaged or diseased cells, tissues and organs.
But stem cell research has been highly controversial because -- until now -- viable embryos had to be destroyed to extract the stem cells.
The research by Yamanaka's team, who worked alongside US researchers led by James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was praised by the Roman Catholic Church and other critics of embryo research.
The research has since accelerated. Yamanaka said that up to five laboratories in the United States and several in Japan have since also produced stem cells from human skin, known as pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells.
"This is because technology is very simple," he said. "All you need is a basic technology, cell biology" and "you don't need special technology or equipments."
Yamanaka said having lots of rivals in his research area has caused him a lot of stress but that he believes "it speeds up everything, the process, because of the competition."
"So I think it's very good for patients who are waiting" for treatment, he said.