A step toward stem cell ceasefire
The contentious debate around the ethics of embryonic stem cell research took a welcome step toward oblivion on October 8 when Harvard researchers announced they have developed a safe method for transforming skin cells into "induced pluripotent stem or iPS cells." These cells, derived from differentiated or adult cells—like stem cells derived from and thus destroying embryos—have the ability to morph into any cell type in the body.
The method is safer than previous procedures to create stem cells from differentiated cells because it does not use a virus, which could contaminate resulting cell batches, to carry transformative genes into the cells. The Harvard team was able to use a chemical to change out genes on skin cells and reprogram them into stem cells.
The Harvard researchers' ultimate goal is to take a small skin sample or blood from a patient, reprogram the cells into iPS cells, grow a large batch of these and then use them to make heart cells, blood cells, or nerve cells. Eventually even entire replacement organs could be grown in this manner. Patients using such therapies would not need to take immuno-suppressing drugs since they would essentially be using their own tissue.
Balancing the ethics of embryonic research against the plight of people with profound illnesses who are convinced therapies built on the foundation of embryonic cell research has already proved challenging. There is little common ground in this matter for compromise. Finding a practical therapeutic end-run around embryonic stem cell research or therapies derived from the same would, therefore, create a welcome demilitarized zone in the ongoing U.S. culture wars.