The coming week’s issue of the scientific journal Nature, made available online today, includes several extraordinary new studies on an alternative avenue to embryonic-like stem cells that does not require the destruction of embryos. In the most important paper, scientists at MIT have chemically reprogrammed regular adult cells (like skin cells) in mice to function and appear like embryonic stem cells. They express their results with simplicity and confidence: “Our results establish that somatic cells [i.e. normal adult non-reproductive cells] can be reprogrammed to a pluripotent state that is similar, if not identical, to that of normal embryonic stem cells.” They note further, “our results show that the biological potency and epigenetic state of in-vitro-reprogrammed induced pluripotent stem cells are indistinguishable from those of embryonic stem cells”. In other words, adult cells into embryonic-like cells without the need for embryos.
This is one of three studies published today showing similar results with this technique. It’s all still in mice, and results like this always need to be confirmed and re-confirmed over time, but this is a very big deal, and anticipation of it has been generating huge buzz in the stem cell world for a while now. The quotes in this Nature news story give a sense of how scientists in the field are reacting. The usually stoic German stem cell scientist Hans Scholer (who was not involved in the study himself) tells Nature, “It’s unbelievable, just amazing, for me it’s like Dolly [the first cloned mammal]. It’s that type of accomplishment.”
But unlike Dolly, of course, this advance could also help relieve the concerns of those of us who worry about the destruction of embryos for research. This adds a heavy dose of credibility to the notion that it could be possible to get everything scientists value about embryonic stem cells without the need to destroy or harm human embryos. In the long run (and it may not be all that long to judge by the pace of progress in the past two years), the big stem cell debate of the past few years may well be made obsolete by scientific advances that get around the ethical issues.
Of course, no one has bothered to tell Nancy Pelosi. House Democrats have scheduled a vote on a bill that would turn its back on exactly this kind of work…tomorrow. Good timing.