20 Nov New stem cell technique could end social controversy
Madison, Wis. – Jamie Thomson has acknowledged the social controversy caused by his 1998 stem cell discovery.
Now Thomson, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of anatomy who was the first to isolate and culture human embryonic stem cells, is part of a scientific thrust that may have found a way to end that controversy.
According to separate reports published in Cell and Science, scientists in Wisconsin and Japan have turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells – without having to make or destroy an embryo – a discovery that could mean an end to the social and political battle over increased federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
“The induced cells do all the things embryonic stem cells do,” Thomson said in a university release. “It’s going to completely change the field.”
Federal funding for this type of research has been limited to 21 lines that existed in August of 2001, when President Bush announced the restrictions. Since then, with researchers facing a shortage of human embryonic stem cells, two bills designed to remove the restrictions have passed both Houses of Congress only to be stymied by Bush vetoes.
The scientists, including one team featuring Thomson and Junying Yu of the Kyoto University, have demonstrated that skin cells can be reprogrammed to behave exactly like human embryonic stem cells.
To transform the skin cells, each team added four genes to reprogram the chromosomes of the cells. Two were the same and two were different, but the insertions made the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body – including heart, brain, blood, or bone – without immune rejection.
It is this pluripotency, or the ability to become any cell in the human body, that make embryonic stem cells so promising in medical research.
Under the current method, stem cells are removed from the embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.
Embryonic destruction has compelled pro-life groups such as Wisconsin Right to Life to object on moral ground and oppose additional federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Their opposition comes amid increased funding for adult stem cell and other forms of stem cell research.
However, public opinion has shifted in recent years and now about two-thirds support increased funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Congressional and gubernatorial candidates that support new federal funding, including Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, won re-election last fall largely on the basis of their support for this research.
The ability to create stem cells without destroying embryos could generate more bipartisan support for embryonic stem cell research at the federal and state levels. President Bush praised the discovery, but stopped short of committing additional federal funds.
Wisconsin State Sen. Ted Kanavas, a Brookfield Republican, called on the state Legislature to support his proposal to give $25 million to the University of Wisconsin System to conduct stem cell research that does not involve the destruction of human embryos.
“Taking the ethical concerns out of the equation will allow this important research to move forward much more rapidly,” Kanavas said.
At the moment, most of the 21 embryonic stem cell lines that receive federal funding are housed at the WiCell Research Institute in Madison. In devising its reprogramming technique, the Wisconsin scientific team has developed eight new stem cell lines.
Thomson and Yu were joined on the Wisconsin team by Maxim Vodyanik, Kim Smuga-Otto, Jessica Antosiewicz-Bourget, Jennifer Frane, and Igor Slukvin of UW-Madison, and by Shulan Tian, Jeff Nie, Gudrun Jonsdottir, Victor Ruotti, and Ron Stewart of WiCell.
Since studies are just underway to confirm the new finding, Thomson and others believe it would be premature to abandon human embryonic stem cell research. Verification studies may yet indicate that the reprogrammed skin cells have subtle differences from human embryonic stem cells. The new method includes potentially risky steps such as introducing a cancer gene, and the cancer risk means that the resulting stem cells would not be suitable for replacement cells or tissues for patients with diseases like diabetes.
Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said the breakthrough should go a long way toward defusing the controversy surrounding increased federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, but added that it does not mean scientists should or will abandon other types of stem cell research.
“As the Wisconsin Technology Council has noted in the past, adult stem cell research has demonstrated value over the past 40 years,” Still said in a statement released late Tuesday. “In less than a decade, research using 21 embryonic lines approved for federal funding in August 2001 has also yielded promising results. It only makes sense to compare and contrast results from these different techniques, as important nuances and risks associated with each path will likely surface over time.”
While techniques to produce embryonic stem cells without harming embryos have been under development for several years, other methods so far have proven unreliable. In 2006, the California-based Advanced Cell Technology announced that it had developed a method of deriving stems cells from human embryos without destroying the embryos, but it later admitted that embryos were destroyed in the process.
However, ACT stood by the long-term potential of its stem cell technique, and later entered into an agreement with WiCell, a subsidiary of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, to distribute new cell lines produced with it.
WARF, which holds three patents on Thomson’s original discovery, has filed a patent application on the cell reprogramming technique. Meanwhile, WARF’s original stem cell patents are being challenged before the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Should WARF be granted a patent for the new technique, stem cell research would bring additional economic benefits to Wisconsin. Still characterized human embryonic stem cell research as a highly visible “standard-bearer” for Wisconsin’s $5 billion biotechnology industry. “Once again,” he added, “Wisconsin stands at the core of discovery.”
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