In what could be a revolutionary discovery, Chinese scientists have found a newer, safer way to make adult stem cells as flexible as embryonic stem cells.First, a little background. During the Bush years, there was a lot of controversy over embryonic stem cell research, a line of experimentation that sought to use cells harvested from destroyed embryos to cure or treat a wide range of illnesses. Opponents argued that it was wrong to destroy human embryos in order to create cures, and also argued that the medical promise of embryonic stem cells had been vastly overstated to the public.In 2006, scientists discovered that medical therapies could be derived from stem cells derived from adults, which seemed to render the ethical objections moot. The problem, according to Scientific American
, is that the original way of doing this increased chances of “dangerous mutations” or cancer. The Chinese team claims to have found a safer way of deriving the cells:
Researchers have been striving to achieve this since 2006, when the creation of so-called induced pluripotent (iPS) cells was first reported. Previously, they had managed to reduce the number of genes needed using small-molecule chemical compounds, but those attempts always required at least one gene, Oct4.Now, writing in Science, researchers report success in creating iPS cells using chemical compounds only—what they call CiPS cells.
If the researchers’ claims check out, this would be an important breakthrough, first of all, for the many patients in America suffering from debilitating conditions like Parkinson’s disease, cancer and liver disease. Equally as important, this story is a reminder that, just as new technologies sometimes create vexing ethical problems, they can also resolve them.
[Hospital technology image courtesy of Shutterstock