Tue, Mar 03, 2009 - Page 16 News List

Is the ethical battle over destroying embryos over?

Experts in Britain and Canada have found a way to make stem cells without destroying embryos. The find could hail the advent of regenerative medicine by using a patient’s own cells, which would prevent the risk of rejection

By Ian Sample  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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Scientists have found a way to make an almost limitless supply of stem cells that could safely be used in patients while avoiding the ethical dilemma of destroying embryos.

In a breakthrough that could have huge implications, British and Canadian scientists have found a way of reprogramming skin cells taken from adults, effectively winding the clock back on the cells until they were in an embryonic form.

The work has been hailed as a major step forward by scientists and welcomed by pro-life organizations, who called on researchers to halt other experiments that use stem cells collected from embryos made at IVF clinics.

Ian Wilmut, who led the team that cloned Dolly the Sheep and heads the UK’s Medical Research Council Center for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University where the work was done, said: “This is a significant step in the right direction. The team has made great progress and combining this work with that of other scientists working on stem cell differentiation, there is hope that the promise of regenerative medicine could soon be met.”

Stem cells have the potential to be turned into any tissue in the body, an ability that has led researchers to believe they could be used to make “spare parts” to replace diseased and damaged organs and treat conditions as diverse as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and spinal cord injury.

Because the cells can be made from a patient’s own skin, they carry the same DNA and so could be used without a risk of being rejected by the immune system.

Scientists showed they could make stem cells from adult cells more than a year ago, but the cells could never be used in patients because the procedure involved injecting viruses that could cause cancer.

In 2007, researchers in Japan and America announced they had turned adult skin cells into stem cells by injecting them with a virus carrying four extra genes.

Now, scientists at the universities of Edinburgh and Toronto have found another method, making so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell therapies a realistic prospect for the first time.

In two papers published in the journal Nature, Keisuke Kaji in Edinburgh and Andras Nagy in Toronto describe how they reprogrammed cells using a safer technique called electroporation.

This allowed the scientists to do away with viruses and ferry genes into the cells through pores.

Once the genes had done their job, the scientists removed them, leaving the cells healthy and intact. Tests on stem cells made from human and mouse cells showed they behaved in the same as embryonic stem cells.

“I was very excited when I found stem cell-like cells in my culture dishes. Nobody, including me, thought it was really possible,” said Kaji. “It is a step towards the practical use of reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells.”

Nagy said: “We hope that these stem cells will form the basis for treatment for many diseases and conditions that are currently considered incurable. We have found a highly efficient and safe way to create new cells for the human body which avoids the challenge of immune rejection.”

Josephine Quintavalle from the lobby group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, which opposes embryonic stem cell research, said: “I don’t think people are going to waste time on embryonic stem cells any more. Half of Europe is opposed to embryonic stem cell research. This is definitely a very, very promising way forward and a very promising solution to the embryonic stem cell battle.”

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