Japanese scientists have turned skin cells into embryonic stem (ES) cells in mice using gene therapy. If scientists get this to work in people, all of the ethical problems associated with ES cells will melt away.
Of course there are a lot of technical hurdles to get this to work in people. For example, when scientists used these ES cells in mice, 20% of the mice died of cancer. But the risks and hurdles are worth overcoming because ES cells have so much potential.
ES cells hold the promise to treat previously incurable conditions like spinal cord injuries and diabetes by growing new tissues. But using these cells is controversial. Why?
First off, an embryo usually has to be destroyed to get its stem cells. To people who view these few cells as a life, this is not acceptable.
Another concern revolves around the fact that the most useful ES cell will be one that has the patient's DNA. These "personalized" ES cells won't suffer from the rejection problems doctors see with organ transplants because any tissue grown will have the same DNA. The patient's body is happy to welcome home the new heart or kidney or whatever as long as it has the patient's DNA.
Right now the only way to get ES cells from an adult is to clone that adult. Besides having to destroy this embryo, this procedure also opens up the possibility for growing a full clone of the adult. No reputable scientist would do this but the risk is there.
Besides these ethical problems, there are other practical problems in cloning an adult. You need to get a lot of unfertilized human eggs to make a clone and these are hard to get. We also haven't yet cloned a person. Of course this will eventually be overcome but we don't know when.
This new research gets around many of these problems. By adding just 4 genes to a skin cell, these scientists turned a skin cell into an ES cell.
Just think, ethical stem cells from the patient. This will open up all sorts of possibilities in personalized medicine.