Stem Cell Breakthrough

Saturday, November 24, 2007

THE BREAKTHROUGH in stem cell research, as preliminary as it is, is a triumph of science. By making the equivalent of embryonic stem cells with human skin cells, the new techniques announced this week could solve a moral and ethical dilemma. They could also allow scientists to ramp up to full speed in finding cures for a number of chronic and deadly diseases.

In separate experiments, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan and Junying Yu and James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison succeeded in reprogramming human skin cells to become the equivalent of embryonic stem cells that could then be transformed into whatever cells or tissue doctors need. Mr. Yamanaka named them "ips," or "induced pluripotent stem cells." The cells were exact genetic matches to the skin cells, which leads Mr. Yamanaka to believe that organs or tissue made from them would not be rejected if implanted into the donor of the skin cells. The implications and the potential for miracles are staggering.

There are reasons for caution. First, human medical treatments based on these techniques are a ways off. Scientists have yet to fully understand how DNA is programmed and reprogrammed for therapeutic use. In addition, initial experiments were done with retroviruses that can cause tumors and cancer. Researchers are trying to develop techniques without them. Still, the production of the stem cells avoids the moral and ethical objections raised by President Bush and others to the harvesting of cells from discarded human embryos.

The White House was quick to claim credit for the discovery. "By avoiding techniques that destroy life, while vigorously supporting alternative approaches," said a statement by the press secretary, "President Bush is encouraging scientific advancement within ethical boundaries."

Yet the breakthrough is hardly a vindication of Mr. Bush's policy, which was based on legitimate concerns but went too far in restricting federal funds for research. Though Democrats would be wrong to play down the potential of the new advance to resolve political feuding on stem cells, Congress should continue to consider legislation easing restrictions on the use of discarded embryos for research. After all, this breakthrough could not have been possible without research on embryonic stem cells. The potential gains from this science are so great that all avenues should be pursued until the new technology is proven.

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