Two alternative methods of stem cell harvest that have been proven to work in mice might lead to a less controversial way to grow them.
One team of scientists at Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology used an established fertility technique to take a single cell from a mouse embryo and use it to grow a batch of embryonic stem cells.
A second team at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology managed to genetically damage cells and then use cloning technology to make a crippled embryo that could never develop in the womb.
They then developed embryonic stem cells from the embryo.
Both methods had been discussed as ways to bypass objections that some people, including U.S. President George Bush have to embryonic stem cell research.
The studies, published in the journal Nature, show they are technically feasible, reports Channel 4.
As described in yesterday's online issue of the journal Nature, the team fused that cell with a mouse egg whose own genetic material had been removed a now-commonplace cloning procedure that leads to the growth of an embryo in a lab dish. In this case, though, with every new cell in the growing embryo lacking Cdx2, the embryo had no hope of growing a placenta.
That raises the tricky philosophical question of what moral standing, if any, such balls of cells have in their first days, and whether their creation is a mere experiment in cell biology or an act of cruelty.
"Nobody should be speaking too quickly here on either side," said Robert P. George, a Princeton professor of jurisprudence and a member of Bush's bioethics council. "The way to find out is to do the careful studies to figure out exactly what you've got here. It's not a spiritual question. We're not looking for a soul. The question is, 'Does it have the [biological basis] for self-construction and self-organization, or is it a fundamentally disordered growth?' "
Hurlbut emphasized that the experiments simply proved the approach's potential. He acknowledged that less controversy might arise if scientists knocked out genes that are crucial even earlier in development so the embryo is disabled essentially from the moment of its creation.
"This is just the beginning of the conversation," Hurlbut said. "It's time for everyone to humbly enter a constructive dialogue and listen deeply here."
Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., describes a different approach in the same issue of Nature. His approach involved the removal of a single cell from an even younger, eight-cell mouse embryo. Previous research had shown that such seven-celled embryos can develop as normally as eight-celled ones, informs Washington Post.