As reported by the New Haven Register, November 21, 2007.

Stem Cell Breakthrough

By Abram Katz

Although scientists in the U.S. and Japan reported Tuesday that they had modified ordinary skin cells to behave like cells in embryos, Connecticut and other states should not forsake their private embryonic stem cell research programs, the co-chairman of the Connecticut Stem Cell Coalition said.

The two groups at the University of Wisconsin and Kyoto University posted studies on the Web site, Cell, Tuesday showing that they could make skin cells regress to undifferentiated stem cells by adding only four human genes.

It was a landmark achievement on all fronts, defusing one of the most divisive debates in modern medicine and religion. It was lauded by scientists, ethicists and religious groups.

“This work represents a tremendous scientific milestone — the biological equivalent of the Wright Brothers’ first airplane,” said Dr. Robert Lanza, whose company, Advanced Cell Technology, has been trying to extract stem cells from cloned human embryos.

Scientists said the advance should circumvent the Bush administration’s ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

The results also suggest that scientists are closer to using pluripotent cells — cells that can become any of the 220 different types in the body — to treat diseases and repair damage. Stem cells are believed to hold promise in degenerative neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and dozens of other conditions.

The new technique does not involve fertilized eggs, embryos, sperm or any other aspect of human reproduction that previously prompted protests by some religious groups.

Even so, Dr. Milton B. Wallack, co-chairman of the Connecticut Stem Cell Coalition, said it is much too early to halt the state research programs that came to life in response to the forbidden federal money.

“It’s very encouraging. We need to expand every single avenue. The embryonic stem cell approach is still valuable,” he said.

“The new skin-cell method seems clear of ethical issues, but I’m sure there will always be people who question all approaches,” Wallack said.

“The more people understand the issues, the more they support stem cell research,” he said.

Connecticut set aside $20 million to fund research on embryonic stem cells last year and organized an alliance of nine states that are conducting similar projects.

“It would appear that the work could open up federal funding for stem cell research, but it’s probably much too premature to say that,” Wallack said.

Yale stem cell ethicists said Tuesday that the scientific development sounded interesting and exciting, but they declined to comment because they had not read the reports.

Before the research disseminated Tuesday the only way to obtain embryonic stem cells was to remove them from microscopic embryos. This would either damage or destroy the embryo, which some consider a sacrifice of a human life.

Marc Lalande, director of the University of Connecticut Stem Cell Institute, called the research “a huge step” and “a major advance.”

“No other cells are involved, so there are no ethical issues at all,” he said.

“Can this be used tomorrow in patients? No. We need alternative strategies. Now the race is on,” he said.

Both the U.S. and Japanese scientists took copies of four specially chosen human genes and put the genes in viruses. The viruses were then allowed to enter human skin cells and disgorge the genes as the viruses inserted their own genetic material into the skin cell DNA.

Each team used a slightly different batch of genes. The arrays had two genes in common.

At this point, the technique disrupts the DNA of the skin cells, and that creates the potential for developing cancer. So it would be unacceptable for transplanting into a patient.

But the DNA disruption is just a byproduct of the technique, and experts said they believe it can be avoided.

Lalande said the two studies were especially significant in that different sets of genes both caused the same transformation.

“That means there are more ways to do this. Maybe there is just one gene. This will be a huge new area of research. Everyone will find new ways of doing this,” he said.

The two groups showed that their skin-cells-turned-embryonic-stem-cells were actually pluripotent by demonstrating that the cells can develop into any one of the three germ lines that appear in embryos and eventually develop into bones, organs, nerves, blood and all other tissues.