Skin Cells Can Become Embryonic Stem Cells

The discovery that human body cells can be used as stem cells is creating buzz in the scientific community. Experts say the development will likely transform research; in the political world, some say it will end the debate over the need to use human embryos.

Host Madeleine Brand talks about the finding with NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca. And Alex Cohen discusses the moral and political impacts of this discovery with bioethicist Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Levin, who advised President Bush on the stem cell issue, said the president has been hoping for this kind of alternative to embryonic stem cell research.

Scientists Create Embryonic Stem Cells from Skin

Two teams independently discover a way to turn ordinary human skins cells into stem cells with the same characteristics as those derived from human embryos, a breakthrough that could open the door for advanced medical therapies.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Two scientific teams - one in America and one in Japan - are independently reporting a remarkable advance in stem cell research. They've found a way to make human embryonic stem cells without using human eggs or human embryos. The new technique promises to end the divisive ethical debate over embryonic stem cells that has raged in this country for a decade.

Joining us now is NPR's science correspondent, Joe Palca.

Joe, what exactly did these scientists do?

JOE PALCA: Well, John, what they did was they - instead of starting with embryos and using those to derive embryonic stem cells, they started with skin cells, or actually precursors to skin cells called fibroblast, that we all have in our skin. And they used viruses, as it happens, to insert genes into these fibroblasts. And what they found was that after a few days, these genes that they added were able to get the skin cells to start behaving just like embryonic stem cells. Now, they didn't pick these four genes out of a hat. These are the same four genes that seemed to be very active in embryonic stem cells. So they felt, well, hmm, if we can boost them in skin stem cells, maybe they'll start behaving like embryonic stem cells. And they did.

YDSTIE: Well, they act like stem cells, but are these cells really the same as embryonic stem cells?

PALCA: Well, this work in humans is very new, and there are still a lot of comparisons that have to be made between these cells and human embryonic stem cells, but there's been a lot of work in the last year. These cells were also created using mouse cells, starting with mouse skin cells, and the comparison between what you get from a mouse cell that's transformed this way and an embryonic stem cell, they look to be very similar. So there's every hope that these will be, if not perfectly identical, then identical for the purposes of studying and possibly therapy.

YDSTIE: So does this move us any closer to the day when embryonic stem cells can actually be used for therapy?

PALCA: Well, yes and no. It certainly — well, as we've been saying, it removes an unethical hurdle. So that should mean that funding for these cells, anyway, shouldn't be under any kind of restrictions. The other thing it does is it makes it extremely easy now to tailor a stem cell to an individual because all I have to do is get a few skin cells from you and then put in these magic factors, and suddenly I've got an embryonic stem cell line that's tailor made directly to you.

And then if you, for some — and if these cells do turn out to be useful for therapy and I have to transplant some of them into you, or something derived from them, they'll be yours. It will be like giving your, you know, your own blood back to you. So there won't be any chance of an immune rejection.

But even avoiding the immune problem, I mean nobody has exactly figured out how to use embryonic stem cells or these cells for therapy yet.

YDSTIE: But does this really end the whole ethical debate over stem cells?

PALCA: Well, it - I think it will in the long run, but I think there's still kind of an uncomfortable period, because I've already talked to scientists who say we cannot stop doing human embryonic stem cell research yet. These cells look very promising. Certainly the mouse work suggests that they will be able to do all the things that embryonic stem cells do, but right now we don't know.

And the other issue is that, for the moment at least, getting these magic factors into the skin cells requires using viruses, retroviruses, some other things that you don't want to put in cells. I mean, basically, there are indications that some of these things can and have caused cancer in gene therapy experiments. So right now it's not something to belittle. There are technical hurdles and they have to be worked out. But scientists are confident they will be.

YDSTIE: Thanks, Joe.

NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca.

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