Ethical stem cells, finally!

In what may be perceived as a major breakthrough which has the potential to revolutionize Stem Cell research, a Massachusetts based company claimed on Thursday, 24th Aug, that it had developed a way to make human embryonic stem cells without harming the original embryo.

Professor Lanza and his team used embryos taken from fertility clinics which synthesize many embryos in-vitro from a donor egg and sperm, implant a few and the rest are frozen and eventually discarded. They let its fertilized eggs to grow to 8 to 10 cell stage. At quiescence, the embryo is no longer able to divide into twins but the cells can still form any cell or tissue in the body. They grew stem cells from a single quiescent cell without harming the embryo.

The application of this technique may become a landmark as it supplicates a majority of opposition faced by researchers by pro-life activists who believe that such work is a destruction of life. Pro life supporters consider conception as the beginning of a new life. So any such attempts at altering or breeding stem cells is seen as gross violation of nature and what they see as obliteration of potential human life.

Also, it remains to be seen how it could affect government policy, mainly the US, which recently announced a cut in stem sell research funding. Vetoed by the great simplifier of our times, President Bush who argued that the American people should not have to pay for something they didn’t support, maybe now this assessment would stand void. Scientists can also conduct their research without an anvil of guilt, if at all, hanging over their heads.

A gradual paradigm shift from cell therapy as the primary goal of stem cells to a research tool in studying mechanism of disease is foreseen by premier researchers. This would only enhance the possibilities. In Parkinson’s disease, for example, dopamine-producing cells from aborted fetuses, when injected into the brain of the patient do have an effect, suggesting that a better source of cell could have therapeutic value. This is where embryonic stem cells could be used as a developmental model to extract the chemical or implanting cells produced in – vitro.

Have we found the answer to ethically produce stem cells or is it too early to celebrate? Even with this system it would be difficult to change the majority negative perception of stem cell research as an act against nature.

“Stem cell biology is just a rubric that applies to many things in biology”, says John D. Gearhart, a John Hopkins University stem cell expert and rightly so. It has immense potential to help us better understand ourselves.

To see the abstract published by the team in this weeks Nature magazine click on the title link. (the title of this post)

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