The coming week’s issue of the scientific journal Nature, made available online today, includes several extraordinary new studies on an alternative avenue to embryonic-like stem cells that does not require the destruction of embryos. In the most important paper, scientists at MIT have chemically reprogrammed regular adult cells (like skin cells) in mice to function and appear like embryonic stem cells. They express their results with simplicity and confidence: “Our results establish that somatic cells [i.e. normal adult non-reproductive cells] can be reprogrammed to a pluripotent state that is similar, if not identical, to that of normal embryonic stem cells.” They note further, “our results show that the biological potency and epigenetic state of in-vitro-reprogrammed induced pluripotent stem cells are indistinguishable from those of embryonic stem cells”. In other words, adult cells into embryonic-like cells without the need for embryos.
This is one of three studies published today showing similar results with this technique. It’s all still in mice, and results like this always need to be confirmed and re-confirmed over time, but this is a very big deal, and anticipation of it has been generating huge buzz in the stem cell world for a while now. The quotes in thisNature news story give a sense of how scientists in the field are reacting.
NEW YORK – In a big step toward a long-sought goal, three teams of scientists say they’ve produced the equivalent of embryonic stem cells, at least in mice, without taking the controversial step of destroying embryos.
Their procedure makes ordinary skin cells behave like stem cells. If the same can be done with human cells — a big if — the procedure could lead to breakthrough medical treatments without the contentious ethical and political debates surrounding the use of embryos.
It’ll be interesting to see the reactions of the “embryonic stem cell research NOW!!!!!” crowd to this news. I mean, think about it: assuming that these tests are confirmed and re-confirmed, the embryonic stem cells the usual suspects so strongly claim that we “need” in order to create “vital cures” for people with diseases which are not yet cureable won’t be “needed.” And I say “needed” loosely because it’s the pro-embryonic stem cell research crowd who claims embryonic stem cells are “essential” to curing diseases like Parkinson’s, in spite of the fact that there has not been one shred of evidence to support the claim. All they have to go on is “hope” – nothing concrete. On the other hand, adult stem cell research continues to surprise and amaze us with the things we’re learning about it. This news is nothing short of awesome.