Direct Conversion May Make Embryonic Stem Cell Research Obsolete

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 29, 2010   |   12:23PM   |   Philadelphia, PA

Scientists made a major step towards making embryonic stem cell research obsolete when they used direct reprogramming to convert adult stem cells to an embryonic-like state. Now direct conversion is moving the ball forward.

The process of direct conversion involves changing one kind of specialized stem cell into another kind — and it eliminates the need for controversial embryonic stem cells, which some scientists promote because they can change into most any kind of cells.

It is also an improvement on the direct reprogramming technique pro-life advocates applauded because it moved the debate in a more ethical direction.

“I think everyone believes this is really the future of so-called stem-cell biology,” John Gearhart of the University of Pennsylvania, who is engaging in direct conversion research, told the Associated Press.

“This is something that’s really caught fire because it’s an easy strategy to use,” Gearhart said. “Everyone’s out there trying their different combinations (of chemical signals) to see if they can succeed.”

Gearhart also says direct conversion is helpful because embryonic stem cells are producing immature cells and the new process would produce mature cells that provide better prospects for patients and cures.

The direct conversion approach also avoids the need to create embryonic-like stem cells from adult stem cells because it gets to the end result of creating new cells without going through additional steps from beginning to end.

But Gearhart cautioned the public in his Associated Press remarks, saying direct conversion is still new, unproven and needs considerable research to make it viable.

“We’re a long way from showing safety and efficacy for any of these things,” Gearhart said. “This stuff is all so new that we have a lot of work to do.”

Dr. David Prentice, a former Indiana State University biology professor who is now a fellow at the Family Research Council, applauded AP for the focus on the process, saying it “highlights one of the most exciting areas in science now.”

He told  “The “direct conversion” technique bypasses formation of stem cells, directly converting one cell type into another.  The most recent example of turning human skin into blood cells shows that this ethical technique has a real future.”

Prentice said the success of the technique “exposes the failure of unethical, unsafe embryonic stem cell research, rather than the usual hype associated with embryo research.  Direct conversion offers an ethical way forward, and may even be one mechanism by which adult stem cells are producing current successes in patients.”

Bioethics attorney Wesley J. Smith says he thinks direct conversation has the ability to make embryonic stem cell research obsolete — which helps solve the ethical problems pro-life advocates have with it since unborn children must be destroyed to obtain the cells.

“When George W. Bush praised scientists as having the talent and ability to discover and harness the healing potential of regenerative medicine ethically, that is, without needing to destroy embryos–his enemies scoffed. What a dope,” he said. “His religion got in the way of the understanding that ESCR was the only hope.”

“That was then,” Smith added.

“Now, scientists are working with a number of techniques that are already providing hope in human trials–adult stem and umbilical cord stem cells–as they develop astonishing techniques that can reprogram normal cells into pluripotent stem cells–IPSC, now being used in drug testing and to study disease–or now, even skip the stem cell stage altogether with direct reprogramming or “direct conversion.”  More advances have been made on the latter front,” Smith opined.

If scientists can make more progress with direct conversion, Smith says “the cures angle would become obsolete–and with it, the politics of hype–as the scientific focus, and the research dollars shifted–and just perhaps, the resulting ethical regenerative medicine would stall the drive toward Brave New World.”