No Need to Destroy Embryos, Several Studies Show

By Katherine Poythress | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - Three different group studies published this week document the successful creation of stem cells without destroying human embryos. The studies were reported the same day the House of Representatives passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, allowing federal funding for more types of embryonic stem cell research. The Senate passed the bill in April. (see related story.)

The studies are a breakthrough in the controversy over stem cell research, as they provide evidence for a viable alternative to the destruction of embryos. Many scientists hang their hopes on stem cell research for breakthroughs in the treatment of debilitating diseases like Parkinson's.

Using data gathered from a 2006 Japanese study with mice, MIT professor Rudolph Jaenisch, a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, conducted his own study, the results of which were published online Thursday in the journal Nature. Jaenisch's results indicate that normal skin cells can be reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells.

Jaenisch was quoted in the Whitehead Institute's Research News Thursday as saying, "These reprogrammed cells, by all criteria that we can apply, are indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells."

According to the National Institutes of Health, "stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body," a trait called pluripotency, and can serve as "a sort of repair system for the body" by dividing themselves without limit to replenish other cells.

According to the Whitehead Institute article, the reprogrammed skin cells can "give rise to live mice," conform themselves to every tissue type, and be passed on to succeeding generations.

Jaenisch did caution MIT News on Wednesday, saying, "These results are preliminary and proof of principle. It will be a while before we know if this can ever be done in humans."

Two other studies report similar findings. Kyoto University's Shinya Yamanaka's study was published in Nature simultaneously with Jaenisch's.

According to the Whitehead Institute, the other study was written by a former member of Jaenisch's group, Konrad Hochedlinger, who is now at the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Hochedlinger's study will appear in the inaugural issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell, Whitehead Institute said.

Jaenisch lab scientist Marius Wernig told MIT News, "We are optimistic that this can one day work in human cells.

"We just need to find new strategies to reach that goal," Wernig added. "For now, it would simply be premature and irresponsible to claim that we no longer need oocytes [eggs] for embryonic stem cell research."

At a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday before the House began debating the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) asserted that "these cells (skin cells) hold all the promise of embryonic stem cells but without requiring the destruction of human life at its earliest stage."

"All the potential and none of the controversy," he added. "And yet today we will again vote on legislation promoting stem cell research that has yet to cure a single disease or even treat a single human disease and requires the destruction of human embryos."

President George W. Bush issued a statement after the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act passed the Senate in April, promising to veto the bill should it reach his desk. The statement added that "the advancement of science and medicine need not conflict with the ethical imperative to protect every human life."

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