Embryonic Stem Cell Research Alternative Jumps Ahead With Parkinson’s Success

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Apr 8, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

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by Steven Ertelt
LifeNews.com Editor
April 8
, 2008

Boston, MA (LifeNews.com) — When two research teams last year created embryonic-like stem cells that could be ethical alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, pro-life advocates were hopeful about their potential. Now, scientists at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have used the reprogrammed cells to successfully treat Parkinson’s in mice.

In November, Japanese professor Shinya Yamanaka and American researcher James Thomson released studies in the medical journals Science and Cell about their process known as direct reprogramming.

They were able to make adult stem cells revert to their embryonic form by turning human skin cells (fibroblasts) into pluripotent stem cells sharing essentially all the features of human embryonic stem cells.

Since then, scientists have been able to advance the knowledge and use of the cells and the Boston-area researchers unveiled the latest success story on Monday.

The Whitehead scientists released a new study showing the Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells were effective in alleviating the symptoms of Parkinson’s in rats.

Weeks after a transplant of the IPSCs, Parkinson’s symptoms were significantly reduced and the cells were able to replace lost or damaged neurons.

Marius Wernig and his team published the new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wernig told Thomson Financial News, "This is the first demonstration that reprogrammed cells can integrate into the neural system or positively affect neurodegenerative disease."

"We have shown that the reprogrammed cells have the potential to be used therapeutically, but we still need to find better and safer ways to generate the cells," he added.

The news excited noted bioethics scholar Wesley J. Smith, who said the results show IPSCs have already jumped well ahead of cloning methods in trying to help reduce the effects of diseases.

"In essence, this was therapeutic cloning without the cloning, since the cells were (rat) subject specific and tailor made from the cells of the animal," he said.

"In one fell swoop, IPSCs rushed past therapeutic cloning since scientists haven’t even been able yet to derive human cloned embryos and extract stem cells from them," Smith added.

The direct reprogramming 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 and that could mean labs across the world could produce embryonic-like stem cells without destroying human life.

Last month, UCLA researchers advanced the technique and were able to replicate the studies and create the skin cells without destroying human embryos.

Kathrin Plath, an assistant professor of biological chemistry at UCLA and lead author of the study, told the Daily Breeze that the stem cells they created "were virtually indistinguishable from human embryonic stem cells."

Pro-life groups have welcomed the findings because they represent another alternative to destroying human life to advance science.