22 Aug Harvard advance improves stem cell research; not a medical revolution
Madison, Wis. – A Harvard research team announced on Sunday they have successfully created embryonic stem cells using ordinary skin cells, a finding that could affect some of the ethical debate over their use and open new research avenues. But a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor cautions that the breakthrough has limited repercussions.
In an article published on the Web site of the research journal Science, researchers Chad Cowan, Kevin Eggan and their colleagues at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute reported that by using laboratory-grown embryonic stem cells they have been able to “pre-program” those genes into a human skin cell, creating a new embryonic stem cell. All stem cells used are approved for federally funded research.
The research has attracted strong interest from both a political and medical perspective. With a confrontation looming in the U.S. Senate over opening embryonic stem cell supply lines – a move passed by the House of Representatives and facing a presidential veto – it could build support for the issue by showing not all research destroys embryos.
Ian Duncan, a professor of medical sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the research would likely be seized upon by political interests opposed to destroying embryos and who will use it as a tool to dismiss current research. He cautioned against that view, however, saying the scientists involved know it is not a therapeutic alternative.
Although stem cells produced through the Harvard method have DNA that matches the DNA of the person providing the skin cells, they have a “substantial technical barrier” according to the report in that more DNA is necessary before they can grow replacement parts. Duncan said that since the cells have a double set of chromosomes, it is unlikely they could ever be used for human transplant.
“All of these new discoveries have to be looked at in context,” Duncan said. “And while this is a potentially important piece of work É it’s quite clear that we will not be able to use these cells in the same way as ES cell derivatives could be used.”
Duncan said the new cells would be useful for general research purposes on how stem cells differentiate into organ cells in the body, which by itself is an important breakthrough. They are not, he warns, any sort of substitute for genuine embryonic cells in therapeutic applications.
Alta Charo, associate dean for research and faculty development at the UW-Madison Law School and a Warren P. Knowles professor of law and bioethics, said the research should not be seen as a “techno-fix” that eliminates the ethical debate between patient and embryo life. It is not a substitute for existing treatments but, rather, a supplement that can further existing research, she said.
Charo said that if regenerative medicine is to succeed, each new innovation must be considered and worked into the whole. “To do anything else would be to force patients to wait, and for some of them to die waiting, while we search for the holy grail of an uncontroversial way to do everything that embryonic stem cells can do,” Charo said.