Ethical Embryonic Stem Cell Research Alternative Crosses Another Hurdle

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 26, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Ethical Embryonic Stem Cell Research Alternative Crosses Another Hurdle

by Steven Ertelt Editor
September 26
, 2008

Boston, MA ( — An alternative to embryonic stem cell research that pro-life advocates have hailed as ethical has passed another hurdle in its effectiveness. Scientists first created iPS cells less than a year ago and they excited pro-life groups because the direct reprogramming process to create them doesn’t destroy human life.

Scientists at Harvard University have helped iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells) overcome one of the big hurdles for embryonic stem cell research by turning the adult stem cells into an embryonic-like state without forming tumors.

The tumors are one of the efficacy problems, along with immune system rejection issues, that plague embryonic stem cells and prevent them from being as effective as adult stem cells.

With the iPSCs, the first ones created were made by putting four genes into the DNA of adult cells using retroviruses, which can cause cancer in animals.

The scientists used a different type of virus, known as an adenovirus, which does not integrate its genes into a cell’s DNA and therefore is believed to be harmless, to ferry the same four transformative genes into the DNA of mouse skin and liver cells.

"We have removed a major roadblock for translating this into a clinical setting," says Konrad Hochedlinger, a Harvard University stem cell researcher who published the results in the journal Science. "I think it’s an important advance."

Though the researchers have only demonstrated the success in mice, and not humans, they are hailing the breakthrough as a key achievement that could put iPScs on a faster track to helping patients than their less ethical counterparts.

Wesley J. Smith, a leading bioethicist and attorney, agrees.

"IPSCs were first created in humans only about 10 1/2 months ago," he said in an email to "Yet, hurdles to their full use in regenerative medicine fall at a rate not seen with embryonic stem cell research, or, for sure, therapeutic cloning."

"This does not resolve the problem with all pluripotent cells, e.g., they cause teratomas–a different tumor issue than the cancer fear with IPSCs that seems to have been overcome," Smith added. "But boy, is this field moving fast."

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