A breakthrough in stem cell research reported Thursday could render moot the divisive political-ethical debate over the use of cells culled from human embryos.
A team of Boston scientists announced that they have developed a safe way to generate pluripotent stem cells (iPS) that are functionally similar to embryonic stem cells, but are derived from adult cells. A previous technique had a cancer risk.
The breakthrough involved using mice cells, but if it can be repeated in humans, it could pave the way for treatment of a wide range of genetic diseases. The ultimate promise is to one day develop therapies using a patient’s own cells to cure disease.
It also could resolve a political issue that has come to be as divisive as abortion. Currently, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain would end federal restrictions on stem cell research, but Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is against embryonic stem cell research, as is the religious conservative wing of the Republican Party.
McCain supported President George W. Bush's 2001 compromise on embryonic stem-cell research, which allowed federal funding for existing stem-cell lines. The Catholic bishops of the United States opposed the compromise.
But McCain broke with President Bush and signed a letter in 2004 to expand research to include new embryonic lines. McCain joined 62 other senators in 2007 to support funding for additional lines, which would have meant the destruction of more embryos. President Bush vetoed the bill.
"We have removed a major roadblock for translating this into a clinical setting," said Konrad Hochedlinger, a Harvard University stem cell researcher whose research was published online today by the journal Science. "I think it's an important advance."
An earlier technique created iPS cells by ferrying four genes into the DNA of adult cells using retroviruses, which can cause cancer in animals. There was also concern because the viruses integrated their genes into the cells' DNA in the course of transforming them.
Hochedlinger and his team circumvented this problem by delivering the genes using adenoviruses, which do not insert their viral DNA into a cell's chromosomes. iPS cells generated by this new approach appear indistinguishable from other iPS cells, carry some of the molecular hallmarks of embryonic stem cells, and can form multiple cell types when transplanted into mice.
"I think it's a really important, landmark study," said Kevin Eggan, an assistant professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University told HealthDay News.
Stem cells are the body's master cells, giving rise to all the tissues, organs and blood. Embryonic stem cells are considered the most powerful kinds of stem cells, as they have the potential to give rise to any type of tissue.
Hochedlinger and other experts said that embryonic cells might still be necessary in some research, but critics of embryonic stem-cell research said the work was more evidence that research on embryonic stem cells is unnecessary.
"This is the latest in a line of studies showing that the practical problems associated with using 'reprogrammed' adult cells are rapidly being solved," Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in an e-mail to The Washington Post.
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