Some scientists still want ESCR

A faster and more efficient way of deriving stem cells from ordinary skin cells has been discovered, announced scientists in Boston on Sept. 30, who said their discovery will revolutionize an already-booming field of medical advances through adult stem cells. Meanwhile, stem cells derived from human embryos cannot claim even one success in human treatment.

A technique that develops ordinary cells into stem cells, or induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells, was created four years ago; however, because that procedure tampered with a cell’s DNA, it was considered unstable and a possible cancer risk to patients. But a study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell describes a new method that allows scientists to skip the genetic modification.

While the earlier method involved injecting genetic material that led to the production of messenger RNA that triggered the cell’s transformation, the new technique simply places engineered synthetic mRNA in the cell. The method was used successfully to guide the type of tissue that would result: researchers wrote that the “simple, nonmutagenic, and highly controllable technology” promised potential for a “range of tissue-engineering tasks.”

“Clinical application of iPSCs is currently hampered by low efficiency of iPSC generation and protocols that permanently alter the genome to effect cellular reprogramming,” said senior study author, Dr. Derrick J. Rossi from Harvard Medical School, according to Science Daily. “Perhaps even more importantly, safe and effective means of directing the fate of patient-specific iPS cells towards clinically useful cell types are lacking.”

Rossi said researchers were surprised by just how efficient the method turned out to be.

“We weren’t really expecting the modified RNAs to work so effectively, but the reprogramming efficiencies we observed with our approach were very high,” said the scientist. “We believe that our approach has the potential to become a major and perhaps even central enabling technology for cell-based therapies.”

Other experts also praised the work: Stanford IPS researcher Marius Wernig told the Associated Press that the method would be the first to produce transplant-ready IPS cells.

According to the Boston Globe, Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, predicted that the new method will soon become standard and has directed the institute to adopt it. The scientist called it a “nearly perfect solution” to earlier IPS problems. “There’s no permanent genetic change in the cells and as an added bonus it turns out to be more efficient than the original Yamanaka method,” he told the Globe.

Research on embryonic stem cells, which kill the tiny human lives from which they’re derived, have produced no cures or treatments, and have led to out-of-control tumors that often risk even more injury to a patient, such as in spinal cord injury patients. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, already boast scores of successes in treating and curing conditions including spinal cord injury and a host of devastating autoimmune diseases, including juvenile diabetes, lupus, and multiple sclerosis.

Yet one of the scientists involved in the breakthrough, George Daly, insisted that using IPS cells was not an alternative to embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), according to a Reuters report; he suggested that “all types of stem cell research were equally important as scientists learn how to use them,” in the article’s words.

Bioethics commentator Wesley Smith anticipated Daly’s statement, saying that, “Even if this advance did everything that scientists wanted from ESCR, it won’t stop many from wanting to experiment on nascent human life.”

“Why? Because stem cell advances are not the end game,” he said on his blog, Secondhand Smoke. “They are merely the opening stanza of a much longer symphony that seeks to open the door to Brave New World technologies such as genetic engineering and enhancement, that requires cloning and experimenting on the resulting embryos to perfect.”

This article originally appeared Oct. 1 at and is reprinted with permission.