WASHINGTON (Aug. 22) - Harvard scientists announced they've discovered a way to fuse adult skin cells with embryonic stem cells, a promising and dramatic breakthrough that could lead to the creation of useful stem cells without first having to create and destroy human embryos.
Members of the research team were to discuss their findings Monday. Preliminary results of the potentially groundbreaking research were disclosed Sunday on the Science magazine web site.
The scientists said they were able to show in their early research that the fused cell "was reprogrammed to its embryonic state."
"If future experiments indicate that this reprogrammed state is retained after removing the embryonic stem cell DNA - currently a formidable technical hurdle - the hybrid cells could theoretically be used to produce embryonic stem cells lines that are tailored to individual patients without the need to create and destroy human embryos," said a summary of the research reported on the Science site.
That could lead to creation of stem cells without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process, thereby sidestepping much of the controversy over stem cell research.
The Harvard researchers used laboratory grown human embryonic stem cells - such as the ones that President Bush has already approved for use by federally funded researchers - to essentially convert a skin cell into an embryonic stem cell itself.
If a number of hurdles can be overcome in subsequent research, the new technique "may circumvent some of the logistical and societal concerns" that have hampered much of the research in this country, Chad A. Cowan, Kevin Eggan and colleagues from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute report in the Science article.
Those social concerns are reflected in the Senate's looming debate over a House-passed bill to force taxpayers to fund stem cell research that would destroy human embryos, legislation President Bush has promised to veto. Bush and many fellow conservatives believe it is immoral to create embryos only to destroy them, even in the name of scientific progress that could cure or treat diseases afflicting millions of people.
Debate and a vote on the bill will proceed next month as planned, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's spokeswoman, Amy Call, said Monday. Frist earlier this month said he will vote for the bill, widely expected to pass even in the face of Bush's veto threat.
The hybrid cells created by the Harvard team "had the appearance, growth rate, and several key genetic characteristics of human embryonic cells," the summary of their work said.
"They also behaved like embryonic cells, differentiating into cells from each of the three main tissue types that form in a developing embryo. The authors conclude that human embryonic cells have the ability to reprogram adult cell chromosomes following cell fusion."