Stem Cell Debate Still Thorny Despite Progress

Scientists say they've found a way to create cells that act like embryonic stem cells without using human embryos. That could sidestep a big political and moral debate. Yet some scientists say, not so fast.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The year now ending brought dramatic news in stem cell research. Scientists said they've found a way to create cells that act like embryonic stem cells without using human embryos. That could sidestep a big political and moral debate. Yet, some scientists say, not so fast. In 2008, the debate will continue.

NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca has been covering this story. And Joe, why would the debate continue?

JOE PALCA: Well, the real reason is you can make cells that look like embryonic stem cells; they behave like human embryonic stem cells. But the not so fast part is, until the day comes when they can say, for sure, we can make them safely, we know exactly how they behave - they say research on cells derived from human embryos needs to go forward.

INSKEEP: Well, okay. So you've got these embryonic stem cells and you've got these other stem cells that aren't embryonic, in what ways are they the same as far as it's known and in what ways are they different?

PALCA: Well, right now, they haven't been able to find the ways they're different - that's the interest thing. The big difference is how they're made.

Embryonic stem cells come from an early embryo. These cells are adult cells that they insert some genes into. It turns out these are the same genes that are active in embryonic stem cells. But if you make those genes active in a skin cell - an adult skin cell - suddenly, the cell gets confused for a little while and then it starts acting like an embryonic stem cell, in the sense that it'll continue to grow indefinitely in the lab. And of you give it a certain tweak in one direction or another with chemicals or various conditions in the lab, it'll start turning into blood cells or brain cells or muscle cells or skin cells - same as an embryonic stem cell would.

INSKEEP: So this is what I want to know. If you've got these stem cells that aren't embryonic stem cells, from my finger, say, are researchers, right now, able to watch, in a Petri dish or some place, as these cells begin to clamp up and grow and become human tissue? Can they do everything that they want to do as far as studying that with the new kind of cells here?

PALCA: It appears, yes. That's the exciting thing. They can get these cells to start to beat as if a heart cell was forming. It's an amazing thing to see, Steve. Cells that were just nondescript suddenly start contracting. The thing they can't do yet is, say, we're safe to put these cells into a human being, into a patient who needs new heart muscles, or who needs new brain cells, because the way they make these cells involve some tricks and techniques and viruses that will make them potentially hazardous. So…

INSKEEP: Oh, and this is the end goal of all of this - is to do some kind of medical research where you might be able to replace somebody's liver or replace somebody's heart.

PALCA: That's the clinical end goal. That's what people are willing to dig into their pockets to pay the big bucks for because they think it's going to help people live longer. But the goal from a scientific standpoint is to understand ourselves, our biology. These cells may be fantastically useful for that, and they may be a complete dud for medical therapy. We don't know yet.

INSKEEP: I wonder if this is going to simply move the political debate into another phase, because you have people who are opposed to embryonic stem cell research who have seized on this information. And you have all these scientists and researchers and government bodies that have money allocated in research, ready to go right now that would want to continue on the path that they already are.

PALCA: Well, there's some quality to this which is, you know, I have been doing this research for 10 years, in some cases, and I don't want to just abandon it.

INSKEEP: On the embryonic stem cell.

PALCA: Right. But that said, there's a lot of labs that stopped other research they were doing in order to pursue this new direction. So they're saying, until we know - the scientists are saying until we know which one is the most promising, let's pursue all directions.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that all this, could in the end, be decided on what you might consider the scientific merits, rather than the political merits of either side?

PALCA: Hard to believe that such a thing was possible, Steve. Yes, I think that could be, but it's going to take a little while.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca.

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