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stem cells, ALS, embryonic stem cells
Andre Penner/AP

Stem Cell Researchers Make Healthy Cells from Sick Patients’ Skin

August 01, 2008 04:23 PM
by Isabel Cowles
Researchers at Harvard and Colombia Universities have found a way to create healthy embryonic-like stem cells from the skin cells of individuals with ALS.

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A breakthrough in stem cell research shows that cells taken from sick patients can be turned into functioning embryonic-like stem cells. Previously, stem cells were only created from the cells of healthy individuals.

Doctors at Colombia and Harvard Universities created personalized stem cells using skin from two patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The doctors created new stem cells, “and then reprogrammed them to morph into replacement motor neurons,” ABC News reports.

“This opens the door to being able to make patient-specific stem cell lines from diseases which affect people very late in life, like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease,” said Kevin Eggan, the study's lead author.

In addition, says Lucie Bruijn, science director of the ALS Assn. in Calabasas Hills, “This is an extremely important resource. It gives you a tool to start screening drugs.” However, the method for creating these stem cells employs the same genes that cause cancer, which means that it could not be used directly as therapy.

ABC News explains that the ideal way to create stem cells would be to inject defect-free DNA “into human egg cells … letting them become stem cells before reprogramming them into specific cell types, a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).”

But, notes Eggan, “The inability to have success with SCNT is wrapped up in logistical and political quagmires.”

Despite great advances in stem cell research, such as turning skin cells into heart cells, the practice remains highly controversial: on June 20, 2007 President Bush vetoed legislation to ease restraints on stem cell research. He first vetoed the bill on July 19, 2006.

Headline Links: Latest stem cell breakthrough

Historical context: Stem cell research and policy

Reference Links: All about stem cells

Related topic: Stem cell research debated

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