Embryo-free stem cell fix comes a step closer

Patients could soon benefit from tailor-made stem cell treatments with no need to destroy embryos as scientists eliminate safety concerns.

A team of scientists from Britain and Canada have found a new way of reprogramming a patient’s cells to behave like ones derived from embryos.

It has been possible to reprogramme adult cells for some time, but the previous technique carried the risk of triggering cancer and could never have been used to treat patients.

Now scientists say their new method could make possible a versatile stem cell ‘repair kit’ for the body without any need for destroying human embryos.

Patients are already benefitting from treatments using their own stem cells, but these have been adult stem cells, which have a limited capacity for developing into other kinds of tissue.

Embryonic stem cells have a far wider range of potential uses, but in the course of obtaining them the human embryo is destroyed.

Scientists all over the world are working on alternative ways of harnessing this potential without the use of embryos.

Two years ago Japanese scientists discovered that genes could be used to prompt adult cells to revert to an embryonic state.

However, their method used viruses to ferry the genes inside the cells. These viruses can cause cells to become cancerous.

The new breakthrough uses a different mechanism to introduce the reprogramming genes to the cells. The genes can be introduced and extracted without any cancer risk.

It was developed by a team at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh, who worked on the research with Canadian scientists. Their results have been published in the science journal Nature.

The MRC’s Dr Keisuke Kaji said: “I was very excited when I found stem cell-like cells in my culture dishes.

“Nobody, including me, thought it was really possible.

“This new method will advance the field of regenerative medicine, and should help understand diseases and test new drugs.

“It is a step towards the practical use of reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells.”

Andrus Nagy of the University of Toronto said: “We hope that these stem cells will form the basis for treatment for many diseases and conditions that are currently considered incurable.

“We have found a highly efficient and safe way to create new cells for the human body which avoids the challenge of immune rejection.”

The scientists say it could be some time before the technique is ready to be used on patients.

Josephine Quintavalle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: “What we’ve got here is something that will bring joy to the pro-life movement: a way of obtaining embryonic-type stem cells without having to destroy human embryos.

“There are some scientists who like to hold on to what they’ve got, but I don’t think people are going to waste time on embryonic stem cells any more. Half of Europe is opposed to embryonic stem cell research.

“Ideally you want something that everybody can use without any problems. This is definitely a very, very promising way forward and a very promising solution to the embryonic stem cell battle.”