Scientists’ Advance Further Renders Embryonic Stem Cell Research Obsolete

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jan 27, 2010   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Scientists’ Advance Further Renders Embryonic Stem Cell Research Obsolete

by Steven Ertelt Editor
January 27
, 2010

Palo Alto, CA ( — Scientists have made a major breakthrough using the process known as direct reprogramming that further renders embryonic stem cell research obsolete. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have succeeded in transforming mouse skin cells directly into functional nerve cells.

With the application of just three genes, the new cells make the change without first becoming a pluripotent type of stem cell — such as an embryonic stem cell.

That is a step long thought to be required for cells to acquire new identities.

"We actively and directly induced one cell type to become a completely different cell type," said Marius Wernig, MD, assistant professor of pathology and a member of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

"These are fully functional neurons. They can do all the principal things that neurons in the brain do."

Dr. David Prentice, a former biology professor from Indiana State University now associated with the Family Research Council, talked with about the breakthrough.

"This is a striking advance in the ability to transform cells into desired functional tissues. The direct reprogramming technique shortcuts any need to revert cells to a pluripotent, flexible state," he said.

"Pluripotent cells such as embryonic stem cells are difficult to control, and there are problems with tumors and getting the desired final cell type, as well as the ethical problems of destroying young human embryos to get the pluripotent cells," Prentice continued.

"With this direct reprogramming technique going directly from a skin cell to a specialized functioning nerve cell, the process avoids the problematic intermediate and gets straight to the cell type needed. By eventually determining the right mixtures, any available cell could be turned into another cell," he told "These are exciting results."

Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith also had good things to say about the ethical progress.

"Please note–this is not an adult stem cell success. It is direct programming from one kind of cell directly into another," he cautions.

"Still much work to do before it is demonstrated that the technique can be used in human clinical work–some scientists express doubts–but a great step forward. Good ethics do produce good science," he writes at his blog Secondhand Smoke.

Wernig is the senior author of the research, which will be published online January 27 in Nature.

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