In a step forward for regenerative medicine, researchers have transformed skin cells into embryonic stem cells that now can be converted to just about any other cell type, with profound implications for human health and disease.
The approach entails transplantation of an individual's genetic material — DNA — into an egg cell depleted of its genetic material. The technique is called somatic cell transfer.
What is the significance of this approach, then? It obviates the need to harvest human embryos or kill them, and researchers no longer need to be at odds with the Vatican or other religious faiths, ethical or cultural beliefs. Since it does not use fertilized embryos to obtain stem cells, or destroy the embryos, no ethical issues are involved.
Human cloning is not likely the objective of the method described in the journal Cell, by Oregon State University scientists led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, senior scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Center.
Cloning of the sheep Dolly in 1996 in the United Kingdom was followed by cloning of almost 20 species including goats and rabbits. However, complex creatures such as monkeys or primates, with advanced biologies and reproduction systems, defied cloning efforts.It was also impossible to develop a human clone. However, the research is already stirring up a hornet's nest. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston warned in an AFP release that other researchers will use the new technique to try to clone people. "This way of making embryos will be taken up by people who want to produce cloned children as copies of other people."
"Whether used for one purpose or the other, human cloning treats human beings as products, manufactured to order to suit other people's wishes." He added, "A technical advance in human cloning is not progress for humanity but its opposite," he said in a statement released to AFP.
"While nuclear transfer breakthroughs often lead to a public discussion about the ethics of human cloning, this is not our focus, nor do we believe our findings might be used by others to advance the possibility of human reproductive cloning," the scientists said.
By reprogramming the skin cell to any other cell type, scientists should no longer be the butt of political or religious opposition.
"A thorough examination of the stem cells derived through this technique demonstrated their ability to convert just like normal embryonic stem cells, into several different cell types, including nerve cells, liver cells and heart cells," says Mitalipov.
In addition, "since the reprogrammed cells use genetic material from the patient, there is no concern about transplant rejection."
"While there is much work to be done in developing safe and effective stem cell treatments, we believe this is a significant step forward in developing the cells that could be used in regenerative medicine," Mitalipov said.
The major application of stem cell research include treatments for Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and blindness. "Reprogramming somatic cells into pluripotent embryonic stem cells (ESCs) by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) has been envisioned as an approach for generating patient-matched nuclear transfer (NT)-ESCs for studies of disease mechanisms and for developing specific therapies," the researchers summarize.