Scientists during the past three years have made quick progress toward creating cells that eventually could end the controversial research into human embryonic stem cells.
The ability to consistently make replicas of embryonic stem cells would enable researchers to avoid the religious and ethical concerns about destroying human embryos to advance science and seek cures.
Hundreds of American scientists, from Cornell University in New York to UCLA, the University of Wisconsin to the University of Texas, are working on some form of research involving the replicas, known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.
A University of Nebraska Medical Center researcher, Dr. Angie Rizzino, was among 22 scientists recently selected to receive federal stimulus funds to extend his iPS work.
Researchers are using mouse cells, rat cells and human cells of many sorts — skin, eye, fat, brain, liver and others — to find those that are the most effective to manipulate into embryonic-like stem cells.
Scientists believe they are a few years from understanding induced pluripotent stem cells well enough that they could replace embryonic stem cells. And they believe they're 10 years or more from applying the induced cells to human treatments.
So the flurry of research, though promising, may not ease matters politically for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents. The regents are being pressed to prohibit the expansion of embryonic stem cell research under new federal regulations.
They are scheduled to take up the matter Friday in Lincoln.
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research applaud the UNMC work on the new kinds of cells as a sign of the demise of human embryonic stem cell research there.
“It's fantastic,” said Chip Maxwell, executive director of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research, which opposes human embryonic stem cell research. “I'm always looking for chances to give credit where credit is due to UNMC.”
Maxwell said the future of stem cell science rests with the new method of creating cells.
But scientists say their knowledge isn't far enough along to make that declaration yet.
“Human embryonic stem cells were, and will continue to be for some time, a steppingstone,” said Rizzino, a professor at UNMC.
He said scientists would not have been able to create induced pluripotent stem cells without studying human embryonic stem cells. And the understanding of the latter cells needs to deepen, he said, to understand how to efficiently and safely produce the induced cells. Scientists still don't know, for example, how different the induced cells are from embryonic cells.
Rizzino said the time may arrive when the new strategy makes human embryonic stem cell research unnecessary. But for now, he said, research on all fronts should continue in order to improve the understanding of how cells function and how diseases start.
Rizzino and another researcher at UNMC, Dr. Stephen Rennard, study human embryonic stem cells using only stem cell lines that were approved by the Bush administration eight years ago. They don't destroy embryos. Nebraska law makes it illegal to use state money or state facilities to destroy human embryos for research.
The Obama administration has eased restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Former President George W. Bush in 2001 limited funding for research to a small group of cell lines in existence at the time. President Barack Obama is allowing funding for research on hundreds of existing cell lines as well as from unused embryos created for fertility treatments that are donated by patients.
The government also is encouraging study into an alternative, the induced pluripotent stem cells. Rizzino's new $115,000 grant supplements an approximately $1 million, four-year grant to conduct research into iPS.
In all, an arm of the National Institutes of Health is using $5.4 million in Recovery Act money — part of the $787 billion stimulus package passed this year — to accelerate studies of iPS cells.
Embryonic stem cells are important to scientists because they contain the blueprint for every cell and organ. The cells, produced during a short period in an early stage of an embryo, are pure and undamaged.
Scientists are striving to tweak them with genes and chemicals into specific kinds of healthy cells that may treat a patient's damaged spinal cord, blindness, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and other diseased or damaged areas. Actual treatments for humans have yet to be devised.
Japanese researchers in 2006 discovered they could create human embryonic stem cell-like structures by placing certain genes into skin cells.
This has led to hope that the reprogrammed cells could hold the treatment potential of embryonic stem cells while avoiding religious, moral and ethical opposition. Further, because the cells would come from the patient's body, the immune system wouldn't reject them when used for treatment.
The research sparked has been widespread and the developments rapid.
From his lab in the old Eppley Institute at UNMC, Rizzino, for instance, studies a protein called Sox2 and the genes involved in the formation of induced pluripotent stem cells.
His research may help overcome some of the technical challenges in using iPS cells in a clinic, said Dr. Susan Haynes, a program director in the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
Another of the 22 recent grant recipients is a Colorado State University microbiology professor, Dr. Jeffrey Wilusz, who is working with foreskin cells from infant penises. He obtains the tissue from tissue banks.
“Essentially, any human cell is fair game. Any mouse cell is fair game,” he said. “The frontier is limitless. ... The potential for iPS cells from a therapeutic perspective is limitless.”
Dr. Roger Williamson, a University of Iowa obstetrics professor, is attempting to use the new technology to reprogram skin cells of patients with muscular dystrophy. He hopes then to turn them into heart muscle cells and see where cell development in that patient went wrong.
“Most feel that we still do not know where the breakthroughs are going to come,” Williamson said. “Everyone in the stem cell field is excited about it.”
Massachusetts researchers have had success in treating sickle cell anemia in mice with skin cells manipulated with the new technology.
Another use of iPS cells could be to test the effects of drugs on human tissues.
Opponents of human embryonic stem cell research don't object to the scientific goals, said Dr. Richard O'Brien, professor at Creighton University's Center for Health Policy and Ethics. They object to the means those scientists use to reach them.
Regardless of whether progress is being made, human embryos shouldn't be killed “if we hold human life to be sacred or inviolate,” O'Brien said.
As a Catholic institution, Creighton opposes human embryonic stem cell research on religious and moral grounds,
“A lot of progress has been made in a short period of time” with induced pluripotent stem cells, O'Brien said, and creating those cells gives scientists a way to skirt the need for embryonic stem cells.
UNMC's Dr. Iqbal Ahmad said many scientists are trying a variety of strategies to develop and improve on the induced cells.
He recently published an article in the journal Stem Cells. Because scientists worry that the infusion of genetic material may cause the cells to behave abnormally, Iqbal seeks to create the embryonic-like stem cells with chemicals instead.
“We are in what is called (an) exploratory stage,” Ahmad said. “It's a very exciting period.”
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