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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

SCIENTISTS TURN SKIN CELLS INTO EMBRYO-LIKE STEM CELLS

Rayilyn Brown wrote this article for the AZNPF winter newsletter using about 100 sources:

SCIENTISTS TURN SKIN CELLS INTO EMBRYO-LIKE STEM CELLS

On November 20, 2007, scientists in the United States and Japan announced that a major breakthrough in stem cell research had been achieved by turning human skin cells into embryo-like stem cells. It is hoped that in the future thousands of labs will have the capacity to reprogram skin cells to function in much the same way as embryonic stem cells while avoiding the religious and ethical barriers that surround embryonic stem cell research today.

Although opponents of embryonic stem cell research are claiming victory and asserting that it and SCNT (therapeutic cloning) are no longer necessary, the war is not over. In announcing their discoveries, Dr. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University emphasized that much more research needs to be done on stem cells that have been derived from human embryos.

According to Thomson, “It’s not the time to say human embryonic stem cell research is dead.” Thomson, who first isolated embryonic stem cell lines in 1998, stressed that this breakthrough would not have been possible without embryonic stem cell research and that the religious and political controversy over embryonic stem cell research has set the field back five years.

Dr. Yamanka, the principal author of the study published by the journal Cell, echoed that view, arguing it would be “premature” to conclude that the cells created in his lab would replace embryonic stem cells.

“Like embryonic stem cells, these reprogrammed cells become ‘pluripotent’ - that is, they’re capable of turning themselves into virtually any tissue in the human body, including neurons and heart tissue. They also exhibit many of the of the biochemical properties of embryonic stem cells, although they’re not genetically identical to stem cells.”

The application of this research to treating people with Parkinson’s disease and other conditions depends on whether the following problems can be solved:

Dr. Robert Lanza, Advanced Cell Technology’s chief scientific officer, points out that

“First of all, the function of the reprogrammed cells will have to be compared closely with the function of actual embryonic stem cells.” Will religious fundamentalists allow this to happen or will they be successful in outlawing research that involves human blastocysts?

Furthermore, a safer virus needs to be found to deliver the genes to the skin cell. “In both experiments, the four-gene recipe was added to the skin cells using a virus as the delivery package. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) would never allow us to use these virus-modified cells in patients”, added Lanza.

Reprogramming the skin cells makes them likely to produce cancers, just like embryonic stem cells.

A back door to human cloning may turn off certain supporters of this research. Dr. Yamanaka confirmed that the reprogramming technique could allow for the creation of egg cells as well as sperm cells from the same person, male or female.

Finally, it is clear that it would be foolish to declare “Mission Accomplished” at this point in time. We just don’t know yet whether or not “embryo-like" cells are as good as the real thing. Let us hope that scientists are allowed to find out.

Rayilyn Brown
Board Member AZNPF
Arizona Chapter National Parkinson's Foundation
rbrown@aznpf.org

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