It's like finding a way to turn water into gasoline, or recycled paper into gold.
Under the headline Major Breakthrough in Generating Safer, Therapeutic Stem Cells from Adult Cells, Science Daily reports that researchers at Scripps Research Institution have perfected a technique for transforming ordinary stem cells into the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells.
"We are very excited about this breakthrough in generating embryonic-like cells from fibroblasts [cells that give rise to connective tissue] without using any genetic material," says Scripps Research Associate Professor Sheng Ding, who led the research. "Scientists have been dreaming about this for years."
This is the next big step, a huge improvement, on research announced in November, 2007, from Japan and the University of Wisconsin (I wrote about it here), in which ordinary adult cells were successfully transformed into pluripotent cells.
A pluripotent cell has the ability to grow into any of the human body's special cell-types. For decades, science has believed that this miraculous quality of pluripotency could only come from embryonic stem cells. It's those embryonic stem cells that morph into the special cells that become our heart, lungs, nerves, muscles, etc.
But embryos are not just blobs of tissue, they are human life at its earliest stage of development. The only way to harvest those magical stem cells is to kill the embryo.
Ethical concerns about experimenting on human life, and the scarcity of embryos in the first place, led a number of researchers to look for ways to avoid using them at all. They wondered if you might somehow turn back the clock on ordinary cells and revert them from single-purpose cells back to pluripotent cells. The answer turned out to be a big yes, but the technique had problems.
That's because it required implanting four genes into the cell, creating a risk that the cells might harm a human patient receiving the cells in a treatment.
This newest technique solves that problem nicely. Once researchers knew that you could turn back the clock on an ordinary cell, they became convinced that there must be other ways to get it done. By doggedly trying various approaches, the Scripps Research team discovered a combination of proteins that worked as well as the former gene-implant technique, but without the risks.
The scientists found that those reprogrammed embryonic-like cells (dubbed "protein-induced pluripotent stem cells" or "piPS cells") from fibroblasts behave indistinguishably from classic embryonic stem cells in their molecular and functional features, including differentiation into various cell types, such as beating cardiac muscle cells, neurons, and pancreatic cells. Major Breakthrough in Generating Safer, Therapeutic Stem Cells from Adult Cells, Science Daily
Science is always slow and careful, sometimes advancing more slowly than we would like it to. But it does advance. Just weeks after the Obama administration removed all restrictions on embryonic stem cell experimentation, science once again moved the football and made that morally-dangerous decision completely unnecessary.
It is not well known that there are many dozens of successful medical treatments today that are based on the use of adult stem cells, those common cells found in our skin and other bodily tissues. They are not pluripotent, but they are capable of treating a variety of diseases, including cancers of the brain, retina, ovaries, many lymphomas, auto-immune diseases and others.
Embryonic stem cells, by comparison, have yet to produce even a single treatment or cure. Their very pluripotency makes them like loaded guns, and keeping them from shooting the wrong target and killing the patient has been a major problem.
Induced pluripotent cells the breakthrough reported today are still potentially dangerous to patients. But this new technique gives these cells some significant advantages over "genuine" embryonic cells.
First, they are abundant, since they come from the most common cells in our bodies. That gives researchers lots of material on which to experiment and learn. Human embryos that might be available for experimentation are in very short supply.
Second, there is no ethical dilemma posed by their use we can gain the benefits of these powerful, pluripotent cells without destroying human life.
The White House got impatient and jumped the gun. They bowed to the pressure groups and opened up a Pandora's box of ethical problems by lifting the Bush administration's restrictions on embryonic experimentation. Keep in mind that these newest research breakthroughs took place during a time when the Bush administration limited the use of embryonic cells for experimentation. Science didn't stop; it found a better way, a way that we can now pursue in good conscience, a way that has made embryonic experimentation unnecessary, even obsolete.
Let's hope the President's science advisers realize the mistake they have made. This is a game-changing event. It is immoral to harvest body parts from human embryos to serve the health needs of human adults, and now, we have no excuses. Let's put this genie back in the bottle before it's too late.