Science

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Andre Penner/AP
A researcher holds a test tube filled
with stem cells.

Breakthrough in Stem Cell Research Avoids Previous Cancer Hazards

September 26, 2008 03:42 PM
by Rachel Balik
Scientists have found a new, safer way to reprogram mature cells so that they mimic the function of embryonic stem cells.

Scientists’ Breakthrough Eliminates Need for Embryonic Cells in Research

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In the past year, researchers have made major breakthroughs in stem cell research. Beginning with animals and moving on to human skin, scientists have been able to reprogram mature cells into functioning as malleable stem cells. In this way, they can avoid using stem cells from embryos, and for many, assuage reservations about the ethics of stem cell research.

In August, the procedure still required creating induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, by using cancer-causing retroviruses. Although the technique worked, it came with its own set of ethical and medical problems.

Now, researchers have successfully reprogrammed adult cells so that they function like embryonic stems cells, but without using retroviruses to do so. The new procedure uses an apparently safer but less efficient adenovirus. Stem cell researcher Konrad Hochedlinger of Harvard University told The Washington Post, “We have removed a major roadblock for translating this into a clinical setting.”

Background: The path to discovery

Last year, scientists discovered that they could use the skin cells of mice to produce the apparent equivalent of embryonic stem cells. However, it wasn’t clear how this procedure would apply to humans at the time. Although scientists were enthusiastic about the discovery, they did not feel it meant that research on embryos should be abandoned, especially since that discovery only applied to mice.

Then, a few months later, scientists achieved the same results with human skin cells. They were able to reprogram the adult cells so they behaved like embryonic cells. The advantage of embryo cells is that they are “infinitely reprogrammable,” and while the cells derived from adult cells didn’t have quite that capacity, they came very close, reported USA Today.

In August 2008, scientists were able to take cells from patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease and use retroviruses to create stem cells that grew into healthy motor neurons.

Reference: Government policy on stem cell research

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