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Monday, November 26, 2007

Reprogrammed Skin Cells could replace Embryonic Stem Cells

A breakthrough in stem cell research was announced last week in a paper in the journal Science where researchers from the University of Wisconsin -Madison in the US and other colleagues reported how they reprogrammed human skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells.

The report is grabbing the headlines not just because of the remarkably simple elegance of the science, the fact that introducing four genes is all that is needed to "reprogram human somatic cells to pluripotent stem cells that exhibit the essential characteristics of embryonic stem cells", but also because of the profound impact it appears to be having on the ethical debate surrounding stem cell research.

Leading bioethicists like R. Alta Charo, a UW-Madison professor of law and bioethics are saying that the discovery is starting to "redefine the political and ethical dynamics of the stem-cell debate", and could neatly sidestep the ethical and legal problems surrounding use of embryonic stem cells, because, as Charo explained:

"This is a method for creating a stem cell line without ever having to work through, at any stage, an entity that is a viable embryo."

The research was carried out in the lab of UW-Madison biologist and professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, James Thomson, the scientist who in 1998 was the first to recover embryonic stem cells from human embryos. This time the study was led by Junying Yu of the Genome Center of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center.

Speaking about this latest breakthrough, Thomson said:

"The induced cells do all the things embryonic stem cells do. It's going to completely change the field."

Embryonic stem cells are valued above all others because so far they are the only kind shown to be truly "pluripotent", that is having the capacity to become any of the 220 types of cell in the human body. They have the potential to generate new heart, liver, brain, muscle and bone tissue, and replace diseased or damaged tissue in people who are ill with cardiovascular, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and a whole range of the other diseases including diabetes.

Scientists at UW-Madison said that the new method developed by Yu and colleagues brings the generation of pluripotent stem cells within easy reach of many labs of "moderate sophistication".

The other advantage of the new method is the fact that using cells drawn from the patient's own skin, the stem cells can be customized to the patient, bringing numerous benefits, such as the elimination of immune system rejection.

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