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Issue Date:  December 7, 2007

Ethical, scientific breakthroughs seen in new stem-cell studies

Scientists and ethicists hailed as a breakthrough two studies showing that human skin cells can be reprogrammed to work as effectively as embryonic stem cells, thus making it unnecessary to destroy embryos in the name of science.

Separate studies from teams led by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan and Junying Yu and James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison were published online Nov. 20 by the journals Cell and Science, respectively.

“The methods outlined in these papers fully conform to what we have hoped to see for some time,” said a statement from the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

“Such strategies should continue to be pursued and strongly promoted, as they should help to steer the entire field of stem-cell research in a more explicitly ethical direction by circumventing the moral quagmire associated with destroying human embryos,” it added.

By adding four genes to the skin cells, the scientists were able to create stem cells that genetically match the donor and have the ability to become any of the 220 types of cells in the human body.

“The induced cells do all the things embryonic stem cells do,” Thomson said in a university news release. “It’s going to completely change the field.” Thomson isolated the first embryonic stem cells in 1998.

Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist who created Dolly, the cloned sheep, in 1996, told the London Telegraph that in light of the new findings he had decided to abandon his efforts to clone human embryos and would instead concentrate on research involving the reprogramming techniques.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center said Wilmut’s change of heart “flowed largely from practical considerations” but that the scientist also had acknowledged that the new approach was “easier to accept socially.”

“Persistence in seeking creative scientific breakthroughs and actively pursuing alternative approaches can help resolve serious ethical problems and allow us to maintain the ethical integrity of science while achieving important scientific and medical ends,” the center’s statement said.

However, Thomson and the International Society for Stem-Cell Research called on scientists to continue research with human embryos. More study is needed to ensure that the newly made cells “do not differ from embryonic stem cells in a clinically significant or unexpected way,” Thomson said.

-- Catholic News Service

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2007

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