A major breakthrough in stem cell development could help resolve the ongoing debate over the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research.
A team of scientists led by Derrick J. Rossi of the Immune Disease Institute at Children’s Hospital Boston published a paper Thursday showing that they can quickly and efficiently transform skin cells into cells with all the properties of embryonic stem cells.
Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, called the report, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, “a major paper in my view in the field of regenerative medicine.”
“What Rossi and his colleagues have done is really a major advance for two or three reasons,” said Mr. Melton at a phone-in press conference.
The findings were also hailed by opponents of embryonic stem cell research, who have long criticized the scientific and political communities for focusing on the use of embryos at the expense of other, less morally objectionable methods.
“I think this is a stunning development,” said Dr. David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical and Dental Association. “People have been saying we have to use embryonic stem cells because we don’t have an alternative. Well, now we have an alternative.”
The research comes at a critical juncture in the embryonic stem cell debate. A federal judge put a hold on such research in August after ruling that the Obama administration had likely violated the law by using federal funding for research that involved the destruction of human embryos.
In response to the decision, National Institutes of Health pulled 50 grant applications that were scheduled for peer review and $15 million to $20 million in grant proposals slated for the next stage of review. On Tuesday, however, an appeals court ruled that the NIH could continue to fund research as the case makes it way through the courts.
The Rossi breakthrough builds on the research of Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, who announced in 2006 that he had converted fully developed adult skin cells into cells that were all but identical to embryonic stem cells.
But the cells, which Dr. Yamanaka called induced pluripotent, or iPS, cells, had a few problems. The primary concern was that they developed using viruses, which raised the possibility that they could trigger cancers.
Scientists have since raced to figure out how to replicate the research without the side effects. The Rossi team used modified RNA to generate the stem cells without altering the cells’ genetic material.
“The resulting stem cells very closely recapitulate the functional and molecular properties of human embryonic stem cells, and are generated at much higher efficiencies than standard virus-based techniques,” according to a Children’s Hospital Boston statement.
Mr. Melton said he was so “impressed” with the findings that the Harvard Stem Cell Institute will immediately begin using the new method to develop its stem cells.
“We’re turning over our entire iPS core to this new method,” said Mr. Melton.
Foes of embryonic stem cell research have long called on the scientific community to focus more of its attention on adult rather than embryonic stem cells. The Rossi team’s findings were made using neo-natal skin cells, or those of newborn babies, according to the paper.
Debi Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God for Life, raised some concerns about the findings, saying that the published paper showed that the scientists used aborted fetal cell lines in their research. “In reality, this is no moral victory,” she said.
Researchers have used embryonic stem cells to validate their findings in their search for alternative stem cells. If that’s all the embryonic stem cells were used for, however, then U.S. researchers now have more than enough embryonic stem cell lines to accomplish that, said Dr. Stevens.
That doesn’t detract from the fact that the findings represent a “huge breakthrough,” said Dr. Stevens.