The Speculist: Embryonic Stem Cells From Adult Skin Cells


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Embryonic Stem Cells From Adult Skin Cells

Scientists have been excited about the possibilities of embryonic stem cells at least since they were isolated in 1998. These cells are the root of the tree. We start as a handful of these cells and grow into a full individual. These cells can - and do - differentiate to become all parts of the body. If we could harness this capability, theoretically we could grow entire replacement organs. Or we could treat diseases like diabetes and heart disease noninvasively.

That's been the hope. But in order for embryonic stem cells to help a particular patient, they need to be a match for that patient. Up until now, the only way to get a perfectly matching stem cell line was by cloning. First, a human egg was harvested painfully from a woman. Then the egg donor's genetic material would be removed and the patient's genetic material would be added. After the resulting embryo had divided a few times, stem cells could be harvested - killing the embryo.

If that sounds labor intensive, it is. If it sounds expensive, it is. If it sounds ethically questionable - well, you're not alone in thinking that. Some question the destruction of the embryo; others see the potential of exploiting women for their eggs. For embryonic stem cells to move beyond the lab to produce therapies for patients, we needed a better way to produce embryonic stem cells. It looks like we got it:

Scientists have made ordinary human skin cells take on the chameleon-like powers of embryonic stem cells, a startling breakthrough that might someday deliver the medical payoffs of embryo cloning without the controversy.

Laboratory teams on two continents report success in a pair of landmark papers released Tuesday. It's a neck-and-neck finish to a race that made headlines five months ago, when scientists announced that the feat had been accomplished in mice.


"People didn't know it would be this easy," Thomson said. "Thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow."

And we need thousands of labs. We need the stem cell lines for research, and we also need for this method to be perfected. At present the method disrupts the skin-cell DNA too much to be safe. It is thought that as this procedure is refined, the risk of creating cancer instead of stem cells will be reduced.

Glenn Reynolds remarked that if this pans out, it will be the biggest story of the year. I think it will pan out. There's essentially no chance that this could be hoax - as with Dr. Hwang back in 2005. This research was accomplished independently by teams on two continents. And since it can be easily reproduced, this is likely to become accepted science very soon.

But this probably won't be the biggest story of this year. This is the sort of story that only excites those who understand the implication. It's likely to be a bigger story in a few years when medical breakthroughs start disrupting medicine-as-usual. When that happens researchers can point back to this moment as the watershed - the point at which it all began.

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