Scientists Make Major Advance in Embryonic Stem Cell Research Alternatives

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 30, 2010   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Scientists Make Major Advance in Embryonic Stem Cell Research Alternatives

by Steven Ertelt Editor
September 30
, 2010

Washington, DC ( — As the Obama administration lobbies the courts to uhold President Barack Obama’s executive order forcing taxpayers to fund embryonic stem cell research, scientists have made another major advance in alternatives that don’t require the destruction of human life.

Derrick J. Rossi of the Children’s Hospital Boston led a research team that published a series of experiments showing they can use artificial versions of naturally occurring biological signals to convert typical skin cells into embryonic stem cells.

A report in the Washington Post today indicates the scientists can make the alternative cells quickly and are also able to prompt the cells to turn into specific tissues that could be used in transplants for patients.

Normally, embryonic stem cells can only be obtained by destroying early human life days after conception but the alternative would allow scientists to work with embryonic-like cells without the moral problems that spark pro-life opposition.

Douglas A. Melton, who co-directs the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said the new paper Rossi and his team submitted to the journal Cell Stem Cell, "is a major paper, in my view, in the field of regenerative medicine."

Jeanne Loring, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, told Bloomberg this is an advance that convinces her there is progress in this area.

“The question is: Would I be willing to try this in my lab?” Loring said. “I’ve said no to everything else but I’d say yes to this.”

The development is an advance on the technique researchers discovered called direct reprogramming that allows scientists to turn adult stem cells into embryonic-like stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) by activating certain genes. The mRNA doesn’t stay in the genes of the skin cell, where it could cause cancer, according to the study.

However, that process came with concerns that the cells could cause cancers and scientists worked on alternative methods to avoid that problem.

The new approach Rossi’s team used involved molecules known as "messenger RNA," or mRNA, whereby researchers create mRNA molecules that prompt the cell to produce proteins needed to reprogram themselves.

Induced pluripotent stem, or IPS, cells were developed by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Kyoto, Japan, four years ago.

Melton predicted Rossi’s technique will become the standard method of making IPS cells, and he directed the Harvard stem cell facility to adopt it.

Dr. David Prentice, a former biology professor at Indiana State University and now a fellow with the Family Research Council, responded to about the new development.

"This new method for making iPS cells is a significant step forward for this type of stem cell. It is faster, more efficient, and even easier than previous methods, and also safer than previous methods because it gets around any use of viruses or potential cancer genes," he said.

"The iPS cells can be made from any patient or tissue and behave like embryonic stem cells, yet without using embryos, eggs, or cloning, making these cells much more useful for laboratory studies than embryonic stem cells. However, adult stem cells remain the gold standard of stem cells for patients, already treating thousands of people for dozens of different conditions," Prentice said.


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