Scientists Create Embryonic Skin Cells in Mice Without Destroying Human Life

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 7, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Scientists Create Embryonic Skin Cells in Mice Without Destroying Human Life

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by Steven Ertelt Editor
June 7
, 2007

Washington, DC ( — As Congress debates a bill that would force taxpayers to fund embryonic stem cell research that involves the destruction of human life, scientists say they have created the equivalent of embryonic stem cells using mice skin cells. If done in humans it could lead to obtaining the embryonic cells without killing days-old unborn children.

This research is preliminary and has only been established in mice so far, but it represents the kind of ethical alternative sources for embryonic-like stem cells that pro-life advocates support.

The results of the work — done by three different independent research teams — were hailed by pro-life advocates and scientists alike. They applauded the potential ability to mimic embryonic stem cells in a noncontroversial way but cautioned that there’s a big questions about whether the process would work in humans.

Dr. Asa Abeliovich of Columbia University in New York, who didn’t participate in the work, told AP, "It’s very convincing that it’s real."

Richard Doerflinger, who monitors bioethics issues for the nation’s Catholic bishops, told the Associated Press he was delighted about the news.

"This is what we were looking for people to explore because it may provide all the advantages of embryonic stem cells without the moral problem," he said. “Morally and practically, this new approach appears to be far superior."

The advance is an easy-to-use technique for reprogramming a skin cell of a mouse back to the embryonic state.

If the technique can be adapted to human cells, researchers could use a patient’s skin cell to generate new heart, liver or kidney cells that might be transplantable and would not be rejected by the patient’s immune system. But scientists say they cannot predict when they can overcome the considerable problems in adapting the method to human cells.

Last year, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University identified four genes in mouse cells that have the capacity to turn countless other genes on and off in the proper configuration to make a skin cell revert to an embryonic state.

Now Yamanaka and two American teams — one led by Wernig and Jaenisch and the other by Konrad Hochedlinger of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Center — have gained good control over the process. They infected mouse skin cells with viruses genetically engineered to activate the four key genes.

About one in 10,000 of those infected cells became an “induced pluripotent stem” cell, or iPS cell, with all the characteristics of an embryonic stem cell, the teams reported in three papers in today’s issues of two journals — Nature and Cell Stem Cell.