The latest advance in adult stem cell research, which bypasses the need for human embryos, has raised questions about whether embryonic research needs to continue at all.
Scientists at Imperial College London have managed to stimulate the bone marrow of mice to produce specific types of stem cell.
They injected a drug that prompted the marrow to release a surge of those stem cells into the blood stream. The stem cells then automatically home in on the area requiring repair.
Team leader Dr Sara Rankin compares the new technique to sending hundreds of fire engines to a burning building, rather than just one. She is confident that the technique will one day work on humans.
Since the procedure works inside the body, there is no need to produce stem cells externally, and no need for the destruction of human embryos.
Following an interview with Dr Rankin, the BBC’s Technology Correspondent Tom Feildon was asked in the light of this latest advance if there was ever any need to experiment on human embryos.
He said: “It is a promising area of research, but I don’t think scientists are ready to abandon embryonic stem cell research just yet.
“But it is one of a series of developments recently that do seem to be moving us away from or bypassing this whole problem of the ethical dilemma of research on human embryos.”
The debate surrounding the use of embryos in stem cell research is often portrayed as between scientists on one hand, and religious or ethical objectors on the other.
However, it is increasingly scientists who are championing the far more promising avenue of adult stem cell research rather than work using and destroying embryos.
Some scientists have voted with their feet, including Dolly the Sheep creator, Professor Sir Ian Wilmut. Prof Wilmut turned away from embryonic stem cell research some time ago, and has written about the benefits of using adult stem cells.
Another leading researcher in adult stem cell research recently left the UK with his team in order to work in France, where embryonic research is banned and far more funding is available for adult stem cell research.
Professor Colin McGuckin said he decided to work in France because it has a “much more reasoned balance” between embryonic and adult stem cell research, and a “much better environment” both to “cure and treat more people” and to “do good work”.
He said: “The bottom line is my vocation is to work with patients and help patients and unfortunately I can’t do that in the UK.”
Last November a woman’s windpipe was successfully repaired with a section grown in the laboratory using adult stem cell technology. Doctors said the new technique could revolutionise medical treatment.
Yet during the passage of the recent embryology legislation MPs voted to liberalise the UK’s embryology laws even further, despite warnings that the UK risked becoming a “rogue state” by allowing so much experimentation.
Many European countries impose strict regulations on the use of embryos in experiments, as does the USA, although this could change when incoming president Barack Obama assumes power.
Many of the European laws have their roots in the Geneva Convention Code of Medical Ethics, which was adopted in 1948 in the wake of Nazi eugenics and the Nuremberg trials.
It originally included the following statement: “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception; even under threat. I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.”