Advance May End Stem Cell Debate

Without Embryos
SOURCE: | By Patterson Clark - The Washington Post - November 21, 2007
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Researchers in Wisconsin and Japan said yesterday that they have turned ordinary human skin cells into what are effectively embryonic stem cells without using embryos or women's eggs -- the previously essential ingredients that have embroiled the medically promising field in a nearly decade-long political and ethical debate.

The ability to turn adult cells into embryo-like ones capable of morphing into virtually every kind of cell or tissue, described in two scientific journal articles yesterday, has been a major goal of researchers for years. In theory, it would allow people to grow personalized replacement parts for their bodies from their skin cells and give researchers a powerful means of understanding and treating diseases.

Until now, only human egg cells and embryos, both difficult to obtain and laden with legal and ethical issues, had the mysterious power to turn ordinary cells into stem cells. And until this summer, the challenge of mimicking that process in the lab seemed almost insurmountable, leading many to wonder whether stem cell research would ever unload its political baggage.

As news of the success spread in recent days, stem cell scientists seemed almost giddy that their field could suddenly become like other areas of biomedical science: appreciated, eligible for federal funding and wide open for new waves of discovery.

"These are enormously important papers," said George Q. Daley, a stem cell researcher at Children's Hospital Boston who was not involved in the work. Like others, he spoke with stunned elation reminiscent of scientists' reactions in 1997 to the cloning of Dolly the sheep from a skin cell, the first proof that adult mammal cells could have their genetic clocks turned back.

Their enthusiasm notwithstanding, scientists warned that medical treatments are not immediately available. The new method uses genetically engineered viruses to transform adult cells into embryo-like ones, and those viruses can cause tumors. But the cells will be instantly useful for research -- "to move a patient's disease into a petri dish," as Daley put it. And some scientists predicted that, with the basic secret now in hand, it may be only months before virus-free methods for making the versatile cells are found.

"This is a tremendous scientific milestone, the biological equivalent to the Wright brothers' first airplane," said Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., a developer of stem cell therapies.

Especially gratifying to stem cell researchers was that some of their biggest critics seemed mollified.

Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said he was at a Vatican-sponsored meeting recently where the technique was described. "All the Catholic scientists and ethicists at the conference . . . had no moral problem with it at all," he said. "This seems to be a way to get all the same uses that embryonic stem cells and cloning might be put to, without the moral problem."

Another crucial vote of confidence came from James Battey, vice chairman of the National Institutes of Health's stem cell task force, which oversees decisions about funding stem cell research.

"I see no reason on Earth why this would not be eligible for federal funding," Battey said. "I think it's a wonderful new development."

Many teams had been racing to be first to create human embryonic stem cell equivalents without embryos after researchers in June succeeded with mice. Yet scientists around the world agreed that nobody deserved to win that race more than the two competing scientists who did: James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who first isolated stem cells from 5-day-old human embryos, and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who led the recent effort to obtain mouse stem cells without embryos.

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