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News – Adult stem cells avoid ethical dilemmas

December 2008

Adult stem cells avoid ethical dilemmas


Researchers from the University of Cambridge, under the leadership of Professor Austin Smith, recently published a paper describing a new technique that can transform adult stem cells into ‘pluripotent’ stem cells – cells capable of developing into many different types of living tissue.

     The technique is reliable and avoids the need to rely on embryos to generate pluripotent stem cells. Stem cells occur during embryonic development and harvesting such cells causes the death of the embryo. This creates ethical dilemmas concerning the use of human stem cells and related research.

     This ethical dilemma can be bypassed altogether if adult cells are reprogrammed to form pluripotent cells. These are almost identical to embryonic stem cells but come from adult tissue instead of embryos.

     The technique for reprogramming relies on a combination of enzymes and chemicals called ‘inhibitors’ and is able to transform fully differentiated adult cells into cells that are indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells.

     This breakthrough of complete transformation follows on the heels of previous studies in which the induction of pluripotency in adult cells was limited and inefficient. The new process has greatly improved both the success and efficiency – providing a reliable source of stem cells without the destruction of embryos.

     Stem cells are unique because they have the potential to develop into any number of different cell types. Thus they can be ‘directed’ to create medically useful tissues such as nerve, heart or liver tissue.