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Despite New Research on Reprogrammed Stem Cell Technique, We Still Need Embryonic Cells

stem cells in wisconsin labCanadian researchers announced Sunday that they have developed a new way to transform human skin cells into cells that are apparently equivalent to embryonic stem cells. The work points to a day when scientists may be able to make personalized, therapeutic human embryonic stem cells for patients without having to destroy embryos in the process and without having to use potentially cancer-causing viruses to complete the cellular transformation, as other researchers have had to do until now. The report (subscription) appears in the advance online edition of the journal Nature.

Opponents of human embryonic stem cell research are sure to jump on the findings as an excuse to argue that President Obama need not keep his campaign promise to loosen the federal funding restrictions on human embryonic stem cells imposed by George W. Bush in 2001. Why continue using embryos in research, they will ask, when you can get similar cells in a less ethically contentious way? But the administration would be foolish to follow this line, which would continue the unethical strangling of a potentially lifesaving research avenue in favor of a new and unproven alternative.


• This is the first paper to show this technique. The findings have yet to be verified by others and the genetic manipulations involved remain only poorly understood.
• The method starts with human fetal skin cells, not adult skin cells. Experience from animal studies suggests it will be more difficult to convert adult cells—from patients—into embryonic stem cells (which is, after all, the ultimate goal) than to convert fetal cells, which are more genetically pliable.
• It will take years to thoroughly compare these cells to “gold standard” human embryonic stem cells to see if they are biologically and medically equivalent. Meanwhile research on bona fide human embryonic stem cells has made great strides in the past decade. And the first human clinical study of such cells recently got green-lighted by the Food and Drug Administration.

Virtually all scientists agree that the smart way to unleash the promise of embryonic stem cells and regenerative medicine is to pursue multiple lines of work using cells produced by a variety of techniques under strict ethics guidelines, and see which ones prove most valuable in the end for various purposes. The Obama administration must not waver in its commitment to this sensible approach.

Image: Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison

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