Stem cell researchers may have taken the first steps toward conducting stem cell research without having to take the controversial step of destroying human embryos.
If the results can be replicated in human cells, the development could one day silence the arguments of those opposed to embryonic stem cell research on the basis that it violates the sanctity of human life.
"This research in fact lowers the level of ethical concern over reprogramming studies," said Dr. Martin Pera of the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. "If it is no longer necessary to make embryos or use eggs to create patient or disease-specific stem cell lines, there are few ethical barriers to the work."
Even those who have been outspoken in their opposition to stem cell research in the past were pleased with the new findings.
"Because [this research] does not raise the moral problem of creating or destroying embryos, it may offer a way for people of all faiths and all ethical backgrounds to study, use, subsidize, and enjoy any therapeutic benefits of...stem cell research," said Richard Doerflinger, secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"This would be a 'win' for science, ethics and society."
Scientists in the field hail the findings, presented in the form of four new studies, as the most promising stem cell work in years.
Rudolf Jaenisch of MIT's Whitehead Institute, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and Konrad Hochedlinger of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute published papers in Nature and the new journal Cell Stem Cell that reveal a genetic fountain of youth that "rewinds the clock" on adult mouse cells.
In doing so, the researchers were able to use adult tissue to yield cells that look and act like stem cells.
They hope that the findings will one day lead to the creation of human stem cell equivalents that could be used in medical research.
MIT study co-author Marius Wernig explained that adult mouse skin cells were "reprogrammed" back to a stem cell-like state using a kind of genetic deception. Viruses similar to the HIV virus inserted four key genes into the cells. The proteins made by the genes encouraged pluripotency -- the ability of the cells to be morphed into different types of tissues.
Pluripotency is the basis of stem cells' potential to grow new tissues and organs under the guidance of scientists.
"We can basically reverse the development [of adult cells]," Wernig said. "We ran the cells through a battery of tests, and there was no difference between them and embryonic stem cells."
In contrast, he added, "Nuclear transfer [to grow new stem cells] is ethically challenging, and it involves the destruction of an embryo."
Dr. William Hurlbut, a Stanford University professor and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, added, "Direct reprogramming is way to go. No eggs are involved. It doesn't go all the way to the beginning [of the cell's life]. It's like going from 12th grade to first grade, not kindergarten."
Hurlbut envisions a future in which stem cell treatments will help many people and where the treatments will be derived in ethically sound ways that do not trouble deeply religious patients.