Japanese Adult Stem Cell Research May End Embryo Debate

The scientific community’s brief obsession with cloning experiments for stem cell research is about to end if the speculations surrounding the headlines from the June 7 journals Nature and Stem Cell are indeed the major breakthrough they seem to be. The published findings reveal that Japanese researchers have produced embryo-like stem cells from the somatic cells of mice.

“Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I’ve never worked with either,” said the papers author Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in an interview with the London Times. At a conference on stem cell research at the University of Manchester, Yamanaka presented his findings this week.

The cells were made to have the same qualities as a stem cell taken from a very early-stage embryo. The pluripotency was achieved by introducing four proteins which “reprogram” the nuclear DNA in mouse skin cells.

In order to renew and replace tissues in the body, stem cells are used. Thus, healing injuries and curing diseases have become a focus of researchers who are trying to develop new medical applications by using stem cells. Success in experimental treatments of Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, as well as many other conditions has been accomplished with adult stem cells. These cells are now commonly used in some forms of cancer treatment.

Stem cells found in the body are limited in the different types of tissues they can produce. Many researchers support this assessment, especially those who focus on embryonic stem cells research. The pluripotency of embryonic stem cells is an attractive characteristic.

However, the “holy grail” of stem cell research, the equivalent of “transforming lead into gold” could accurately describe the Japanese team’s findings if they are indeed accurate. The discovery of a method of creating pluripotent stem cells exactly matched to the patient without killing an embryonic human being would be one of the most significant discoveries in stem cell research.

Numerous false alarms have transpired over the years with scientists claiming to have discovered a way to work with embryonic stem cells without actually destroying or harming the embryo itself. None of the potential breakthrough’s were a true departure from harming embryos but it seems that the Japanese research team has made this leap.

When asked if whether he thought the Japanese research was another false alarm, Dr. John Shea answered that the paper appeared to present a legitimate breakthrough. Shea said he was still being cautious, but that the research could lead to an ethical solution to the embryo and cloning debate.

Shea, who is a medical ethics consultant to Canada’s pro-life lobby, Campaign Life Coalition said that, “the Japanese team has produced pluripotent embryo-like stem cells similar to blastomeres, those cells found in the earliest stages of embryonic life, but have not created embryos.”