A solution to the stem cell debate?

Two teams of scientists have figured out how to make ordinary human skin cells act like embryonic stem cells.

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The Associated Press just reported that two separate teams of scientists have released papers about their successes making ordinary skin cells, as the article puts it, “take on the chameleon-like powers of embryonic skin cells.” Their approach, known as “direct reprogramming,” has people excited because it doesn’t involve the destruction of embryos, and thus avoids the ethical issues that embryonic stem cell research — issues that have prompted the opposition of people and organizations like President Bush and the Roman Catholic Church.

“Direct reprogramming” was accomplished in mice and reported on five months ago, says the AP, but since then the race has been on to achieve the same results in humans. The winners? A team led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and a separate team led by Junying Yu at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The chief science officer of Advanced Cell Technology is quoted as saying that the scientists’ work “represents a tremendous scientific milestone — the biological equivalent of the Wright brothers’ first airplane.” The procedure is apparently relatively straightforward and is likely to result in countless new stem cell research projects around the world. But there are still many caveats.

The most important is that all stem cell research is still probably many years away from actually producing cures for diseases in humans. But another main issue, which I worry might get lost in the excitement, is that this particular method of creating versatile cells involves disrupting DNA. As the AP explains:

“At this point, [the technique] requires disrupting the DNA of the skin cells, which creates the potential for developing cancer. So it would be unacceptable for the most touted use of embryonic cells: creating transplant tissue that in theory could be used to treat diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s, and spinal cord injury.”

The AP says that experts “believe [this] can be avoided,” but believing in something and knowing how to do it are two very different things.



As a Type 1 diabetic I may be biased, but I think we should be approaching stem cell research from all angles — which makes it somewhat annoying that the White House, while giving the researchers well-deserved praise, said that this was the sort of research that President Bush was advocating when he blocked legislation that would have allowed taxpayer-funded embryo research. (It seems like an “I told you so” that, given the caveats described above, isn’t entirely justified.)

Nonetheless, it’s very exciting that this research has opened a new avenue of stem cell research that may not cause such a political debate. Let’s hope, though, that all the various stem cell techniques are evaluated on the basis of which can actually produce cures, rather than solely on the question of which stir up less political controversy.

Catherine Price is a freelance journalist and author of "101 Places Not to See Before You Die". She also runs a legally themed clothing shop called Illegal Briefs.

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