Magical stem cells could end debate

Research teams discover skin cells can act like stem cells

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A recent scientific breakthrough in stem cell research holds the promise of ending a controversial ethical debate.

Two research teams " one in Japan, one in the U.S. " discovered how to create stem cells without using human embryos.

The scientists, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan, and James A. Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, each discovered the ability of mature, non-embryonic and fully-differentiated skin cells to act like undifferentiated embryonic stem cells.

Dr. Greg Kelly, a biologist at Western, explained: “Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the ability to become any specific type of fully differentiated cell in the body.” This includes skin cells, liver cells, lung cells, among others.

The process is called ‘direct reprogramming’ and involves inserting four specific genes into the mature cells. These genes somehow turn skin cells back into a ‘blank slate,’ capable of acting like an embryonic stem cell.

No one is sure how the genes accomplish this.

“We’re holding a candle in the dark,” Dr. Kelly said. “We have a good map, but not a GPS system.”

Stem cells are important because they can become any cell in the body.

If a patient has a disease requiring cell replacement, the ability to create stem cells from the patient’s own mature skin cells could eliminate the risk a patient’s body will reject transplanted tissues and organs, while avoiding the need for an embryo.

The discovery will also increase the availability of research materials to test drugs and research diseases.

Dr. Rennian Wang, associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry provided an example with diabetes.

“Diabetes [is the condition] when a person’s pancreatic insulin secretion cells are failing, creating the need for insulin injections, or potentially transplant.

“Cell therapy (replacing cells that have failed with a person’s own stem cells) could allow a patient to replace them with little chance of immuno-rejection.”

The ethical debate surrounding stem cell research arose because the only place to find natural embryonic stem cells is in human embryos, which are aborted when these cells are removed.

Pro-life advocates have protested stem cell research for this reason.

Mark Perry, associate professor of law and computer science, who has a keen interest in bioethics, commented that while stem cell research is not illegal in Canada, there are restrictions imposed.

“‘No person shall maintain an embryo outside a woman’s body after the 14th day following fertilization,’” he quoted.

While Yamanaka and Thomson could not be reached for comment, Thomson said in a press release on Tuesday, “While these results may not eliminate the controversy, it is probably the beginning of the end of that controversy.”

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