If initial reports about the process of coaxing embryonic-like stem cell properties out of the stem cells taken from skin cells stand up to scrutiny, an international team led by a Toronto researcher has made a significant find that may definitively render embryonic stem cell research completely irrelevant.

Mount Sinai researcher Andras Nagy might have discovered an ethical alternative to destroying embryos in creating induced pluripotent stem cells.

Mount Sinai researcher Andras Nagy might have discovered an ethical alternative to destroying embryos in creating induced pluripotent stem cells.

Two papers published in the scientific journal Nature reported that scientists led by Andras Nagy at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto have used a new, safe process to turn skin cells into a state that is identical to embryonic stem cells. A previous attempt by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in 2007 to turn cells into embryonic-like stem cells by a was unsafe because it required dangerous genetically engineered viruses to coax the stem cells into their new state. It also was not nearly the ethical alternative it was originally billed as because it was later revealed that human embryo and human fetus cells were utilized as source materials for the cell culture.

Dianne Irving, a former bench biochemist with the NIH and bioethics expert at Georgetown University, told LifeSiteNews.com that pro-lifers should withhold praise for the new discovery until all details are released, including whether cells from embryos or fetuses are used at any stage of the research. But, “if it can be shown that the research is truly accurately performed and does not involve the use of embryo DNA or foetal material at any stage,” Irving said, “then it should be at least given a chance.”

Nagy’s team  was able to get cells from skin to replicate the behaviour of embryonic stem cells by creating iPS cells  induced pluripotent stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, which means that they can turn into any of the other cells that form human tissue. IPS cellss are reprogrammed cells that behave like embryonic stem cells, but are (presumably) created without the destruction of embryonic human life.

Nagy said his discovery is “a leap forward in the safe application of these cells,” said Andras Nagy of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, who helped lead the international team of researchers that described the work in two papers being published online today by the journal Nature. “We expect this to have a massive impact on this field.”

Researchers hope that stem cells will revolution medicine by providing advances in regenerative treatments for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, blindness and cancer. Theoretically, if harnessed, stem cell therapies should be able to treat any disease, illness or injury in which tissue or an organ has been damaged.

The problem with ESCR is threefold. First, there is the moral problem that harvesting an embryonic human being’s stem cells results in the death of the days-old unborn child. Second, the few human trials that have used stem cells from embryos and fetuses have resulted in tumours and other growths that have harmed patients. Lastly, the use of embryonic stem cell therapies would require lifelong use of expensive anti-rejection drugs so patients could live with their new organs.

While ESCR is often touted as the cure to numerous debilitating diseases, every one of the promising 200-plus clinical trials of stem cell therapies have used somatic stem cells. Not only are they ethical, they medically more efficacious.

Researchers still search for ethical embryo-like alternatives because of their greater flexibility than somatic stem cells. One of the benefits of inducing pluripotent stem cells from other cells is that they should be able to be taken from the patients themselves, eliminating the need for anti-rejection drugs. Most importantly, unlike embryonic stem cells, they appear not to cause cancerous tumours.

Other researchers see no need to use somatic and iPS cells exclusively. The Washington Post reported that some scientists think all forms of stem cell research should be undertaken. Mark A. Kay of Stanford University said, “The point is, we don’t know yet what the end potential of (any) of these approaches will be.”

But many researchers are excited about the latest breakthrough.

The Post reported that George Q. Daley, a stem cell researcher at Children’s Hospital in Boston, called it “very significant” because “it’s a major step forward in realizing the value of these cells for medical research.”

Robert Lanza, a researcher at Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology, said “With the new work, we’re only a hair’s breadth away from the biggest prize in regenerative medicine – a way to create patient-specific cells that are safe enough to use clinically.”