Human Embryonic Stem Cells -- Without an Embryo

In a separate editorial published in Science, R. Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin at Madison professor of law and bioethics, noted that this research could greatly affect the political and social controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells.

"This is a method for creating a stem cell line without ever having to work through, at any stage, an entity that is a viable embryo," Charo commented in the editorial. "Therefore, you manage to avoid many of those debates with the right-to life community."

On a political level, Congress in the past has attempted to overturn Bush administration policies on embryonic stem cell research and expand funding on embryonic stem cell lines.

"It's going to fuel those who call for preferential federal funding only for nonembryonic stem cell research, and it will certainly complicate any efforts to expand funding for embryonic stem cell research at the federal level," noted Charo in the editorial.

The Catch

But there are other hurdles that stand between this advance and therapeutic use. Most significantly, researchers report an increased risk of cancer associated with stem cells derived through this approach. One reason for this increased risk seems to be the use of viruses as conduits to carry proteins into cells.

Thus, one of the most vaunted potential uses for stem cells -- the creation of new replacement tissues to treat conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injury -- is still beyond the horizon.

"The risk for cancer -- a feature common to all pluripotent stem cells -- is a major problem and this risk may be higher in these cells than in embryo-derived stem cells because the viral genes used for reprogramming remain present in the cell," Grompe said.

Regardless, this approach holds great promise for further research.

"Pluripotent stem cells can be used to study developmental biology in a dish -- i.e., to observe how human cells, organs and tissues form," Grompe said. "The insights obtained from such studies are likely to lead to the development of new drugs and strategies which can benefit human health."

This approach holds potential for generating stem cells from specific individuals and specific diseases like Parkinson's disease, Type 1 diabetes and leukemia, to name a few.

"Taking a human disease stem cell and showing that it makes a disease in a dish -- that says to the whole human race that now we'll be able to study disease in a dish and not wait for the progression of the disease in patients," said Dr. Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Boston.

Wire reports contributed to this story.

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