Adult stem cells may eliminate Embryo-Related Controversies

Scientists from Madison, Wisconsin have reported in the most recent issue of Science that they are now able to turn adult skin cells into stem cells. Stem cells hold the promise of curing chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, or Multiple Sclerosis. Although most scientists already recognize this potential, the ethical concerns surrounding the methods of isolating stem cells from human embryos have impeded stem cell research. Fortunately, new methods of obtaining stem cells bypasses the need for human embryos, and Dr. Douglas A. Melton, co-director of the Stem Cell Institute at Harvard University, even claims that it is "ethically uncomplicated (1)."

Scientists state that they are able to manipulate adult skin cells into stem cells by adding only four gene factors. Although the stem cells would not be able to make a whole embryo because they could not give rise to a placenta, they would be able to grow into any tissue in the adult human body. Dr. M. William Lensch, a senior stem cell scientist at the Children's Hospital of Boston, explains that the ability to grow adult tissues would have tremendous applications for research dealing with the identification of early stages of disease as well as with clinical therapies for infected patients (1).

Potential therapeutic applications include engineering new insulin-producing cells from stem cells and transplanting them into a damaged pancreas, with hopes of normalizing blood sugars in diabetic patients (2). Often patients would benefit from tissue transplants but are unable to find appropriate organ donors; the new stem cell technique may prevent this problem in the future, by eliminating the need for a donor and allowing the patient's own skin cells to be sufficient for growing needed tissues (2).

However, further work needs to be done before this technique can be used in practical situations. One potential complication is the growth of cancers; scientists were alarmed about this serious side effect when a significant number of cancers formed in experimental laboratory animals after this technique was conducted using mouse cells. Additionally, scientists must also consider the manner in which they add the genes for the transformation of skin cells into stem cells. Though viruses are commonly used in the laboratory for gene insertion, a virus may insert the genes next to cancer-promoting genes, which can then be transcribed (2). Furthermore, as the technique is refined, scientists expect engineered stem cells to better resemble and act as natural embryonic stem cells (2), perhaps providing further therapeutic applications.

References

1. Kolata, Gina. "Scientists Bypass the Need for Embryo to Get Stem Cells." New York Times. Published: November 21, 2007. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/21/science/21stem.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp

2. "Reader's Questions: Stem Cells." November 20, 2007. Available online: http://science.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/20/readers-questions-stem-cells/

Written by Shilpa Gowda

Reviewed by Rashi Venkataraman

Published by Pooja Ghatalia.

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