THE ANNOUNCEMENT by a group of researchers at Harvard University that they have managed to turn adult skin cells into cells that behave like embryonic stem cells offers the potential for an end run around the political feud over stem cell research. Embryonic stem cell research is controversial because generating stem cells requires the destruction of a days-old human embryo. Yet the Harvard team has produced apparent stem cells by a different means: Using existing embryonic stem cells, they coaxed adult skin cells to "reprogram" into stem cells themselves. If the technique becomes viable, it could yield genetically individualized stem cells for patients with a range of diseases for which stem cell therapies might prove compelling. And critically, it could be done without either destroying anything plausibly considered a human life or by creating a cloned embryo. It would be a wonderful development if science simply outstripped the current debate over the morality and ethics of this potentially life-saving research.
As promising as this work might be, however, it is still nascent. Opponents of relaxing President Bush's restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research cite alternative procedures for creating stem cells as one reason Congress should proceed slowly. But as the new study's authors insist, their technique is not yet ready for prime time. Researchers have not figured out how to remove excess DNA from the cells they create -- which contain genetic material from both the skin cell and the embryonic "starter" cell. In other words, lawmakers cannot yet bank on this procedure -- or any other alternative procedure -- to relieve themselves of the duty of deciding whether current stem cell research warrants federal support. It does. The Senate will soon take up a bill, already passed by the House, to free up federal money for this potentially life-saving research. Senate passage is still necessary.