A new breakthrough in stem-cell research has allowed two independent teams of researchers to generate pluripotent stem cells from normal human skin. Both teams tested their slightly different processes and grew many varieties of human tissue from their stem cell colonies, a success that may transform the stem-cell debate — or end it permanently:
Researchers in Wisconsin and Japan have turned ordinary human skin cells into what are effectively human embryonic stem cells without using embryos or women’s eggs — the two hitherto essential ingredients that have embroiled the medically promising field in a long political and ethical debate.
The unencumbered ability to turn adult cells into embryonic ones capable of morphing into virtually every kind of cell or tissue, described in two scientific journal articles to be released today, has been the ultimate goal of researchers for years. In theory, it would allow people to grow personalized replacement parts for their bodies from a few of their own skin cells, while giving researchers a uniquely powerful means of understanding and treating diseases.
Until now only human egg cells and embryos, both difficult to obtain and laden with legal and ethical issues, had the mysterious power to turn ordinary cells into stem cells. And until this summer, the challenge of mimicking that process in the lab seemed almost insurmountable, leading many to wonder if stem cell research would ever wrest free of its political baggage.
As news of the success by two different research teams spread by e-mail, scientists seemed almost giddy at the likelihood that their field, which for its entire life has been at the center of so much debate, may suddenly become like other areas of biomedical science: appreciated, eligible for federal funding and wide open for new waves of discovery.
If this works — and the independent testing almost assures that it will — it will put an end to calls for federal funding of human embryonic stem cells (hEsc). Although no therapies have ever been derived from hEsc research, while adult stem cells have proven much more usable, funding for hEsc remained a constant battle on the federal level. Advocates warned of needless deaths from a lack of research based on the pluripotency of hEsc, while opponents found the notion of using up embryos for destructive research repellent.
Now both sides will have what they want. Researchers can grow all of the pluripotent cells they need without destroying embryos. Unlike hEsc tissues, these will have the identical genetic fingerprints of the patients who will benefit from them — eliminating the need for costly and debilitating immune suppression medication.
The work of Thomson and Yamanaka will not just advance the cause of science, it will remind people that science and human ethics do not have to oppose each other. We do not need to destroy some lives to save others in science, and any science that proposes such a trade should receive the highest degree of skepticism. The likelihood of discovering new science that renders those propositions moot is always high, and as Yamanaka and Thomson discovered, all it takes is patience and a little hard work.