Researchers turn adult cells into embryonic-like cells in stunning development

WASHINGTON — Skin cells have been converted into embryonic-like stem cells in human beings, scientists in Wisconsin and Japan revealed Nov. 20, producing a dramatic shift in favor of opponents of research that destroys embryos.

The news elicited excited responses from both supporters and foes of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) because of its potential for providing therapies for debilitating diseases. It proved especially rewarding, however, for President Bush and others who have worked to hold back the persistent campaign for the government to fund experiments that destroy human embryos.

The reports showed stem cells that have, in essence, the same properties as embryonic ones can be produced without destroying tiny human beings. A human embryo is killed when stem cells are extracted from it.

The president blocked federal funding for stem cell research that destroys embryos with an executive order in 2001 and has twice vetoed congressional efforts to overturn his ban. In the meantime, some states have approved grants for ESCR.

While the newly revealed breakthrough is unlikely to silence the debate, it certainly would seem to put pro-ESCR public officials, scientists and biotechnology firms on the defensive in seeking to explain why government needs to fund destructive research when what appear to be equally powerful results may be obtained without harming donors.

"We don't want to jump the gun scientifically, but this may well be the end of the debate over embryonic stem cells," said bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell. "This is exactly why many of us were saying, 'Take the moral high ground and work for ethical alternatives to embryo-destructive research.'

"The interesting feature of this announcement will be to observe how it reframes the political debate, not to mention the way state funding of embryo-destructive research may be altered," said Mitchell, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and a consultant for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "Embryonic stem cell research may have just become extinct."

The White House said Bush was "very pleased to see the important advances in ethical stem cell research. By avoiding techniques that destroy life, while vigorously supporting alternative approaches, President Bush is encouraging scientific advancement within ethical boundaries."

The president promoted in a 2006 speech the type of research with skin cells that has now proven successful and issued an executive order in June pushing funding for such alternative stem cell research. In fact, federal funds partially underwrote the research on skin cells by the University of Wisconsin team.

The breakthrough with skin cells may not have happened without Bush's stand against funding destructive research, said bioethics specialist Wesley Smith.

"So thank you for your courageous leadership, Mr. President," Smith wrote in a commentary for National Review Online. "Because of your willingness to absorb the brickbats of the Science Establishment, the Media Elite, and weak-kneed Republican and Democratic politicians alike -– we now have the very real potential of developing thriving and robust stem-cell medicine and scientific research sectors that will bridge, rather than exacerbate, our moral differences over the importance and meaning of human life."

The newly successful research is known as "somatic cell reprogramming," or "dedifferentiation." In the separate studies by the two teams, normal human skin cells were converted into stem cells that were, in effect, embryonic in nature, according to The Washington Post. The researchers refer to the resultant cells as "induced pluripotent stem" (iPS) cells.

Embryonic stem cells are considered "pluripotent," meaning they can develop into all of the different cell types in the body. Adult stem cells, also referred to as non-embryonic stem cells, typically have been regarded as "multipotent," meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body's cell types. Now, there is proof in studies on humans that adult cells can become "pluripotent."

Stem cells are the body's master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, giving hope for the development of cures for a variety of diseases and other ailments.

The research teams were headed by stem cell pioneer James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin and Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University, The Post reported. In 1998, Thomson became the first researcher to isolate stem cells from embryos. The Wisconsin and Japanese studies were published in the online versions of the journals Science and Cell, respectively, according to The Post.

In June, Yamanaka's team successfully performed the reprogramming method in mice.

The stunning reports were issued only days after cloning pioneer Ian Wilmut startled the scientific world by announcing he had abandoned research, or therapeutic, cloning in favor of the method the Yamanaka-led team had used with mice. Wilmut's Scottish research team created the sheep Dolly, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, in 1996.

Wilmut, who received a license two years ago in Great Britain to clone human embryos, said he had discontinued his experiments in the cloning field because he believes reprogramming has more potential. It also does not require the controversial procurement of many eggs from females, as well as the destruction of the cloned embryos that would result.

Despite their potential, embryonic stem cells have yet to treat any diseases in human beings and have been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals. Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources -– such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -– has nearly universal support. Such research has produced treatments for at least 73 human ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research.