A new gift from science

November 23, 2007

Dogged and determined scientists appear to have given mankind a remarkable gift: a method for creating personalized medical repair kits using skin cells from a patient's own body.

The discovery, reached simultaneously by researchers in the United States and Japan, has enormous potential to provide lifesaving cures to people with a wide range of injuries and ailments - cures that avoid the prospect of rejection as well as the ethical concerns about destroying human embryos.

Tempting as it would be, though, to declare that there is no longer any need for embryonic stem cell research, that's simply not the case. Both science and ethics demand that all forms of stem cell research continue.

From a scientific standpoint, the latest discoveries are startling, even groundbreaking, but their applicability to medical care is not yet certain.

The new process works by reprogramming adult skin cells with four genes that are injected into the chromosomes using retroviruses, which carry genetic material. But retroviruses can cause cancer, which would make them unsuitable for treating certain types of ailments.

Even more basic, James A. Thomson, lead researcher at the University of Wisconsin, and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco, caution that neither is yet certain that the reprogrammed cells are the same as those extracted from embryos, which at a very early stage have the ability to duplicate cells in any part of the body.

As their work and that of colleagues around the world goes on, study must continue as well on embryonic stem cells, for its own sake and because knowledge gained from one field of study informs the other.

And despite what President Bush and other politicians may say, the ethics of healing also dictates that embryonic stem cell research continue - particularly because scientists have available to them thousands of eggs left over from in vitro fertilizations that would otherwise be discarded.

Granted, a reprieve from the controversy Mr. Bush touched off six years ago when he severely limited the research that could be performed with federal funds would be welcome. Not the least by Republicans hopeful of succeeding Mr. Bush, who would rather not be identified on the wrong side of a cause popular with voters.

Fortunately, scientists throughout the world are inclined to follow their research wherever it leads regardless of what the politicians say. Mankind can probably also thank them for that.

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