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Breakthrough Set to Radically Change Stem Cell Debate

Scientists reported Tuesday that they had succeeded in making human skin cells mimic embroynic stem cells, potentially bypassing the ethical debate over embryonic stem cell use. A cell biologist discusses the research behind the advance.

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    The excitement today was over new studies that suggest a way around the ethical, practical and financial controversies that have characterized the stem cell debate for so long.

    Two teams of scientists, from Japan and the University of Wisconsin, reported they were able to reprogram human skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells, without using embryos or women's eggs. Robert Lanza, a leading researcher on embryonic cells, called it a "scientific milestone, the biological equivalent of the Wright brothers' first airplane."

    On the other side, Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called it a "very significant breakthrough that would be readily acceptable to Catholics."

    And James Battey of the National Institutes of Health said he saw "no reason on Earth why this would not be eligible for federal funding."

    To help explain this, we turn to Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist and professor at Brown University. He also serves as an adviser to the NewsHour's Science Unit.

    Well, Ken, let's start with the science here. What does it actually mean to reprogram cells?

  • KENNETH MILLER, Cell Biologist:

    Well, what it means to reprogram cells, builds upon essentially a trick. And it's a trick that our own reproductive cells pull off when a sperm and egg unite to form an embryo.

    The cells in an adult body — skin cells, muscle cells, nerve cells — are sort of at dead ends. In other words, that skin cell is going to remain a skin cell; that muscle cell is going to remain a muscle cell.

    But our reproductive cells have the ability to go back to stage one, form a single-celled embryo, and then grow into every one of the tissues and cells in the body. That reprogramming is something that happens with us normally between each generation.

    What developmental biologists have longed to understand is how that reprogramming takes place. And what this development means today is that we are a little bit closer to understanding how to switch on the reprogramming, take one of our adult cells, trick it into thinking it's part of an embryo, and hopefully get that cell to develop into cells that we really need to repair or to heal the body.


    And this work came out of studies that were done on mice, right? We talked about it on the program when that was done. So what's the advance here?


    Well, the advance here, on one hand, the advance isn't much. In other words, you could minimize it. You could say, back in June, three laboratories reported that it was possible to pull this feat off, of taking an ordinary adult cell, sticking a few extra genes in it, and reprogramming it to become an embryonic stem cell, and that was done in one species, mice.

    The development today is now it's been done in another species. And you might say, "Big deal." But that other species happens to be human beings, human cells. And now it's getting close to having direct application in hospitals and in laboratories.