Researchers: We Can Make Embryonic Stem Cells Without Destroying Life

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 20, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Researchers: We Can Make Embryonic Stem Cells Without Destroying Life Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
November 20,

Madison, WI ( — Two teams of scientists say they have devised a new process that allows for the creation of embryonic stem cells without the destruction of human life. The reports could be good news for pro-life groups who oppose the research because days-old unborn children are normally killed for their cells.

Stem cell pioneers in Wisconsin and Japan released studies in the medical journals Science and Cell that claim to have found a way — called direct reprogramming — to make adult stem cells revert to their embryonic form.

The studies confirm that human skin cells (fibroblasts) can be used to make pluripotent stem cells sharing essentially all the features of human embryonic stem cells.

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and his team published the Cell paper while James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who discovered embryonic stem cells, published the Science paper.

Yamanaka previously reported, in 2006, turning mouse cells into semi-embryonic ones and then, earlier this year, he said he had produced cells that were almost indistinguishable from embryonic ones.

Both teams moved on from animal cells and Yamanaka’s was able to convert the skin cells from a 36-year-old woman into embryonic ones while Thomson’s team worked with cells from a newborn baby.

The technique involves the introduction of 4 genes into the skin cells, thereby "reprogramming" them to a less specialized (pluripotent) state.

The newly-produced embryonic stem cells are known as "iPS" cells.

The good news about the process is that it can be replicated easily, Thomson told AP. That could mean labs across the world could produce embryonic stem cells without destroying human life.

"People didn’t know it would be this easy," Thomson said. "Thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow."

The new technique isn’t without problems as the researchers must disrupt the DNA of the skin cells to begin the process of reverting to embryonic form. This has the potential of causing cancer in the cells.

As a result, the cells may not be able to be used for medical transplants for patients suffering from diseases such as diabetes or Parkinson’s.

“As long as we use those viruses, I don’t think we can say that the [reprogrammed] cells are as safe as embryonic stem cells,” said Dr. Yamanaka.

However, the researchers involved say they are confident they will be able to fix the problem so the "new" embryonic stem cells can be used for treatments.