Ira Flatow on Science: A Stem Cell Breakthrough?

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Alex Chadwick talks with Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday, about a claim by Harvard scientists that they can create embryonic stem cells without the controversial use of human embryos. The technique — fusing existing embryonic stem cells with skin cells — is still in the development stages.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The big news in stem cell research this week: An announcement from scientists at Harvard that they've found a way to make new embryonic stem cells without actually using embryos. This is hailed in the news media as a breakthrough, sort of, but it's that `sort of' that has left some scientists wondering if the announcement is premature. Here is Ira Flatow, host of NPR's "Science Friday," regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Ira, let's go over what the scientists did.

IRA FLATOW (Host, "Science Friday"): All right, let's talk about it. First, they took laboratory-derived human embryonic stem cells and fused them with a person's skin cells, and what they got was a stem cell that appeared to have many of the characteristics of an embryonic stem cell. And because it contained the DNA of that adult person, it had a distinct and very desirable advantage: It possibly would not be rejected from a hypothetical adult who might need if for treatment if treatments were ever developed. So that was the good news.

CHADWICK: It's a lot of `mights, mights,' `maybes,' `this way, that way' in one sentence, Ira.

FLATOW: That's true. Lots of `mights, maybes.' You could throw in, perhaps, a `someday,' if you want, because there is a major problem with this research. This new embryonic stem cell contains both the DNA of the donor skin cells and of the original embryonic stem cell. And since no cell can function with the kind of tug-a-war that could result from two sets of DNA, one of the challenges is to find a way of removing the original DNA from the embryonic stem cell without affecting the remaining skin cell DNA, which you want to be there.

And that problem caused Harvard researcher Kevin Eggan to declare that while this was good basic research, this technology was, quote, "not ready for prime time." We've heard that kind of stuff before. He said it's not a replacement for those techniques we already have for the derivation of embryonic stem cells. In other words, don't give up on normal embryonic stem cell research just yet.

CHADWICK: OK. For the people who are against embryonic stem cell research, this basic finding would seem to be encouraging. But now this scientist who did this work is saying, `Hold on, don't get your hopes up.'

FLATOW: That's right. Some scientists do say that it may be possible someday to remove that extra DNA, perhaps even before the cells are fused together, but the Harvard team pointed out that doing so remained--they put it very interestingly--quote, "a substantial technical barrier." So as you say, the take-home message here is this is basic research; it's aimed at understanding how an adult cell can be reprogrammed, how its clock can be sort of turned back to a stage when it really had no identity, as in an embryo. It is a research tool.

CHADWICK: OK, the politics of science here for a minute. How is this going to affect the legislation passed by the House, waiting action in the Senate, to relax the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research that President Bush put in place four years ago?

FLATOW: It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. It may add ammunition to opponents of embryonic stem cell research who claim that if we wait long enough, scientists will come up with a way of making stem cells without the need of a human egg or an embryo. But I think it's interesting to be pointed out, and we should remember, that the stem cells used in this experiment all came from human embryos. And even the stem cell lines certified by the president in 2001, they, too, came from discarded embryos.

CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday," a regular DAY TO DAY contributor on Thursdays.

Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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