Embryonic-like stem cells breakthrough – Victory for ethics?

The UK media is reporting a stem cell breakthrough that could end the ethical battle over the use of human embryos.

1. Some facts

The most recent breakthrough in the stem cell technology relates to induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells)*, cells which are embryonic-type but do not require the destruction of human embryos.

This new process of deriving such stem cells was announced first in 2007, in Japan and the US, and was immediately taken up across the world as an exciting development per se and which could as well eliminate ethical concerns regarding the use of embryos.

In layman’s terms this is an adult cell manipulated to go back in time to the state of an embryonic stem cell, but not to the state of an embryo. It has then to be re-directed to create the specific tissue required for regenerative therapy.

This new technology was immediately seen as having scientific advantages over the use of human embryos, as the desired cells could be created from the patients themselves, thus providing perfectly matching tissue. When human embryos are involved, on the other hand, the resulting cells could never be a perfect match, and risks of immune rejection would have to be addressed.

This week’s exciting news of further progress with iPS cells is in relationship to a safety issue associated with the initial technology. A gene-carrying virus was used to derive the first iPS cells and it was proving difficult to remove this virus, which would have prohibited any chance of moving this research towards therapy.

But teams from the UK and Canada have now revealed that they have solved the problem by using a new process, which introduces the necessary genes without the virus. The genes are then removed and the resulting cells are healthy and intact and behave the same way as embryonic stem cells derived from human embryos.

By all accounts it is a relatively simple technique, efficient, and within the scope of most laboratories.

2. The way forward

The task now for scientists is to find the way to turn these embryonic-type stem cells into the various cell types required for therapy, and to ensure that if implanted they do not grow out of control and cause tumours. This is not a problem exclusive to this new type of embryonic stem cell, however. It exists equally for those derived from human embryos as well. Much research still needs to be done to harness the full potential of these cells, to ensure that they differentiate successfully and safely.

3. Cures?

We have a duty to the patients waiting for cures not to over-hype new developments in the field of stem cell regeneration, whatever type is under scrutiny. We must accept, however, that whilst adult stem cell therapies have been applied successfully – in some cases for decades – to thousands of patients, the field of embryonic stem cell therapy is still in its early stages.

Caution aside, the new development still makes a colossal leap forward in stem cell regenerative medicine. That no human embryos are sacrificed in the process is a great joy to CORE and to many others, including a considerable number of scientists who do research on the human embryo but have confessed they would prefer not to.

It is appropriate to remind the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority that research on the human embryo in the United Kingdom can only take place if it can be shown to be necessary. It is high time for some serious rethinking on their part when they issue or renew licences involving the human embryo.

Not only does this current breakthrough solve the big ethical issue of use of the human embryo but it is also the better way forward from a purely scientific viewpoint. This new technology would provide the best tissue match for transplant, derived as it is directly from the patient.

By all accounts, it is also a relatively simple technique, efficient, and within the capabilities of most laboratory facilities.

4. Verdict?

This is ethical stem cell research we can all agree on. Embryonic-type cells have been derived successfully and safely from adult tissue without involving human embryos.

This is very good news and takes much of the battle out of the stem cell debate.

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* http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7914976.stm

Contact: Josephine Quintavalle 0207 581 2623

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