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Is embryonic stem cell research obsolete?

WASHINGTON (BP)–Scientists continue to deal blows to the campaign for embryonic stem cell research, some by shifting their allegiance to a more ethical form of experimentation and some by discovering new means of creating stem cells that do not harm donors.

Prominent scientists previously committed to embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) apparently have shifted their attention away from that method to the reprogramming of stem cells. Reprogramming involves the conversion of normal human cells into stem cells that are, in effect, embryonic in nature.

Meanwhile, Japanese researchers announced Aug. 22 they had created stem cells with the properties of embryonic ones from the wisdom teeth of a 10-year-old girl.

The developments seem to provide further evidence that advances in such therapies can be accomplished without the unethical step of extracting stem cells from a five- or six-day-old embryo, an action that results in the destruction of the tiny human being. Reprogramming is supported by pro-lifers and does not raise the same ethical questions.

Harvard Stem Cell Institute’s George Daley, a former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, is promoting reprogrammed stem cells, the online newsletter BioEdge reported Aug. 14. Reprogrammed stem cells are also known as induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs).

Only three years ago, Daley testified before a U.S. Senate committee that reprogramming was “extremely high-risk” and cloning for ESCR was preferred, according to BioEdge.

Daley and fellow researchers have used reprogrammed stem cells to produce cell lines for 10 diseases, including muscular dystrophy, juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and Down syndrome, according to the journal Cell, BioEdge reported.

“We wanted to produce a large number of disease models for ourselves, our collaborators and the stem cell research community to accelerate research,” Daley said. “The original embryonic stem cell lines are generic, and allow you to ask only basic questions. But these new lines are valuable tools for attacking the root causes of disease. Our work is just the beginning for studying thousands of diseases in a Petri dish.”

As a result, Daley and other scientists have progressed further using reprogrammed cells “in six months than he had in years toiling over embryonic stem cells,” according to BioEdge.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) appears to be moving toward reprogramming, or IPSC, research as well, according to BioEdge. In an Aug. 13 news release, CIRM described itself as “the largest source of funding for embryonic and pluripotent stem cell research in the world” after long calling itself a funding source only for ESCR, the newsletter reported.

“It appears that the CIRM’s love affair with slow, inefficient, expensive, ethically fraught and legally complex human embryonic stem cells may be drawing to a close,” according to BioEdge, which says it seeks to promote ethics and compassion in medicine.

Bioethics specialist Wesley Smith wrote of the developments on his weblog, “It may not yet be a full fledged exodus, but it would appear that the tide has changed dramatically.

“If this continues, and it becomes clear that the tide is irreversibly flowing toward IPSCs, the political ability to create an international ban on human cloning with the catcalls of CURES! CURES! CURES! to distract leaders from doing the right thing will increase. We may actually be able to throttle human cloning before it gets too far out of the test tube.”

IPSCs gained worldwide attention in November when research teams in Japan and Wisconsin reported they converted normal human skin cells into stem cells that were effectively embryonic.

Embryonic stem cells are considered “pluripotent,” meaning they can develop into all of the different cell types in the body. Adult stem cells, also referred to as non-embryonic stem cells, typically have been regarded as “multipotent,” meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body’s cell types. The 2007 study results showed adult cells can become “pluripotent.”

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, giving hope for the development of cures for a variety of diseases and other ailments.

November’s reports were issued only days after cloning pioneer Ian Wilmut startled the scientific world by announcing he had abandoned research, or therapeutic, cloning in favor of the reprogramming method.

News of research showing wisdom teeth can be used to create embryonic-like stem cells came from scientists at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

“This is a significant step in two ways,” research team leader Hajime Ogushi told the news service Agence France-Presse. “One is that we can avoid the ethical issues of stem cells because wisdom teeth are destined to be thrown away anyway.

“Also, we used teeth that had been extracted three years ago and had been preserved in a freezer. That means that it’s easy for us to stock this source of stem cells.”
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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