Pro-life and church groups are optimistic about a new scientific breakthrough that provides yet another ethical alternative to embryonic stem cell research, reports Time Magazine.
According to the scientific journals Nature and Cell Stem Cell, researchers have succeeded in reprogramming ordinary cells from the tips of mouse tails so they are virtually indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells.
Three research groups said they accomplished their feat in mature cells by turning on four genes that are always active in days-old embryos. Some of the rejuvenated cells were able to mature into new mice, demonstrating the cells' ability to create every type of tissue in the body.
Researchers are optimistic that the discovery can be applied to human cells, which would offer an ethical way to create a limitless supply of cell lines tailor-made for patients.
"This would be a win for science, ethics and society," said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. "It may offer a way for people of all faiths and all ethical backgrounds to study, use, subsidize and enjoy any therapeutic benefits of … stem cell research."
Researchers say the method for human cells could eventually start by simply taking a cheek swab or some skin cells, and turning them into stem cells in a laboratory.
While researchers admit that there are lots of technical hurdles to overcome, reprogrammed cells could become the long-sought ethical substitute for embryonic stem cells.
This ground-breaking research was based on a Japanese study at Kyoto University, published last year, in which cells from the tails of adult mice were reprogrammed to become "pluripotent" — able to grow into many kinds of tissues.
In one of the new studies, published in the journal Nature, the Japanese scientists modified their procedures and succeeded in reversing the cell development toward an embryonic stage — which they were not able to do previously. When the resulting cells — which they dubbed induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells — were injected into mouse embryos, they contributed to the development of all parts of the animals.
Some of their offspring also inherited genes from the iPS cells. Senior author Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, from Kyoto University's stem cell biology department, said that genetic inheritance was an important sign because only cells that behave like embryonic stem cells can be passed from parent to child.
While the new Japanese study presented numerous positive results, more than 10 percent of the mice used in the study developed tumors—an obstacle that must be tackled in future research.
As a result, some scientists are concerned that it is too premature to use this method in humans because it might pose a health risk.