Research reported this week by three different groups shows that normal skin cells can be reprogrammed to an embryonic state in mice1, 2, 3. The race is now on to apply the surprisingly straightforward procedure to human cells.
If researchers succeed, it will make it relatively easy to produce cells that seem indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells, and that are genetically matched to individual patients. There are limits to how useful and safe these would be for therapeutic use in the near term, but they should quickly prove a boon in the lab.
I'm sure it's too soon to tell what new ethical questions this research could raise, but it's bound to be a bombshell in the stem cell debate, potentially eliminating the "need" for the destruction of human life in manipulating genetic code:
In theory, embryonic stem cells can propagate themselves indefinitely and are able to become any type of cell in the body. But so far, the only way to obtain embryonic stem cells involves destroying an embryo, and to get a genetic match for a patient would mean, in effect, cloning that person — all of which raise difficult ethical questions.
As well as having potential ethical difficulties, the 'cloning' procedure is technically difficult. It involves obtaining unfertilized eggs, replacing their genetic material with that from an adult cell and then forcing the cell to divide to create an early-stage embryo, from which the stem cells can be harvested. Those barriers may have now been broken down.
"Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I've never worked with either," says Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who has pioneered the new technique.
Beyond the obviously encouraging results from medical and ethical standpoints, it will be fascinating to watch the reaction from the agenda-driven researchers who have invested their careers and reputations in the absolute necessity of continuing and funding work on embryonic stem cell lines. Stay tuned.
Read the details here.