Major Breakthrough: Stems Cells Without The Need Of Embryos

Major Breakthrough: Stems Cells Without The Need Of Embryos
This is news of stem cells, sweet to the ears of ethicists.
Two independent groups of scientists have been able to reprogram human skin cells to mimic embryonic stem cells with hopes of eliminating the need of embryo creation and destruction.

The breakthrough is plentiful with promise to be a new source of stems cells meant for targeting treatments of many ‘incurable’ diseases. Most importantly of course, it could signal the end of using cells from human embryos.

The US and Japanese studies have been published in the journals Science and Cell.

Till now, it was believed that only cells taken from embryos were able to become any of the 220 types of cell in the human body, a property called pluripotency. .

Pro-life campaigners had objected for years to their use on the grounds that it was unethical to destroy embryos, in the name of science. In the US, embryonic stem cells use is contained with limited public funds.

The Japanese team was able to use a chemical cocktail (having just four gene-controlling proteins) to transform adult human fibroblasts into a pluripotent state. The latter are skin cells which are easy to obtain and grow in culture.

The cells created were similar, though not identical to embryonic stem cells. The researchers were able to use them to produce brain and heart tissue. It was a more than welcome sight to see, after 12 days, the clumps of cells grown to mimic heart muscle tissue, beginning to beat.

The US team, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was able to achieve the same effect by using a slightly different combination of chemicals.

They have created eight new stem cell lines for potential use in research.

Using skin cells has another advantage. This means that treatments could be personalized for individual patients, thus lessening chances of rejection.

The ripples of this breakthrough are profound, to say the least. Not only does the new technique eliminate the need to create embryos in the lab, it is also less complicated, and more precisely controlled than current cloning technology.

Professor Ian Wilmut, of the University of Edinburgh, who led the team which created Dolly the sheep in 1996, has welcome the landmark discovery.

However, researchers have warned that more work is needed to refine the process and establish its safety.

At present both techniques rely on viruses to introduce new material into the cells. This is a risk.

Researcher Professor James Thomson was quoted: "The induced cells do all the things embryonic stem cells do.

"It's going to completely change the field."

Dr Shinya Yamanaka, of Kyoto University, a member of the Japanese research team said: "These cells should be extremely useful in understanding disease mechanisms and screening effective and safe drugs."

Meanwhile, Dr Lyle Armstrong, of the International Centre For Life at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, has called the studies a "major development".

"Although it is early days for this technique it may well prove to be every bit as significant as the first derivation of human embryonic stem cells nine years ago”, he was reported.

Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics welcomed the breakthrough: "News that embryonic stem cells can be created successfully from human cells without cloning, without using human embryos or human eggs, or without getting involved in the creation of animal-human embryos, is most warmly welcomed.

"We congratulate these world-class scientists who have had the courage to state their change of tack so cogently”, Quintavalle added.


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