Harvard University scientists announced they've discovered a way to fuse adult skin cells with embryonic stem cells, a promising and dramatic breakthrough that could lead to the creation of useful stem cells without first having to create and destroy human embryos.
Members of the research team were to discuss their findings Monday. Preliminary results of the potentially groundbreaking research were disclosed Sunday on the Science magazine web site.
The team showed that when a human skin cell was fused with an embryonic stem cell, the resulting hybrid looked and acted like the stem cell. The implications: It may eventually be possible to fashion tailor-made, genetically matched stem cells for patients using such a cell fusion technique, rather than by creating and then destroying a cloned embryo. That use of early embryos is the main sticking point for opponents of stem cell research, according to Boston Globe.
The Harvard researchers cautioned that the fusion technique, described in this week's issue of the journal Science, is inefficient and deeply flawed at this point, and emphasized that it should not deter embryonic stem-cell research that involves embryos, nor diminish support for such research.
"Our technology is not ready for prime-time yet," Kevin Eggan, the paper's senior author and an assistant professor at Harvard is quoted as saying by Boston Globe. "Our results do not offer an alternative now."
The scientists said they were able to show in their early research that the fused cell "was reprogrammed to its embryonic state."
"If future experiments indicate that this reprogrammed state is retained after removing the embryonic stem cell DNA currently a formidable technical hurdle the hybrid cells could theoretically be used to produce embryonic stem cells lines that are tailored to individual patients without the need to create and destroy human embryos," said a summary of the research reported on the Science site, AP informs.
That could lead to creation of stem cells without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process, thereby sidestepping much of the controversy over stem cell research.
The new cell fusion technique would enable scientists to create vastly greater quantities of embryonic stem cells for research.
That would mean they could do far more experiments aimed at understanding what happens when a regular, adult cell is transformed into an embryonic stem cell, a process known as "reprogramming." Researchers are struggling to determine how a cell that is "adult," already committed to its role in the body as, for example, a nerve cell or skin cell, regresses back to the proto-state in which, as a stem cell, it could still potentially become any of the hundreds of types of cells in the body, Boston Globe says.
The cell fusion technique "provides an experimental tool," said Azim Surani, a Cambridge University professor who performed similar cell fusion in mice and was not involved with the Eggan paper. "It's not something that we can use now, but it allows us to take steps toward understanding this process of reprogramming."