Without so much as a by-your-leave from the federal government, scientists continue to unlock the secrets of the cell. The most recent advance involves a new, safer way to make adult skin cells behave exactly like embryonic stem cells.
The breakthrough that permitted researchers to reprogram skin cells to behave like so-called pluripotent stem cells (meaning they can grow into any organ or cell type in the body) actually came in 2006. Researchers used viruses to carry new genetic information into the cells. Showing that an adult cell could be manipulated to become a stem cell was an incredible breakthrough with enormous political implications. But the use of viruses carried the risk of increasing rates of cancer and the danger of other contaminants. The new technique, announced March 2, apparently uses a structure called transposon, which, according to Bloomberg News, is "a section of DNA that can move as a block within the genome of a cell." After it reprograms the cell, it can be removed by the apparently harmless addition of an enzyme.
"It's very exciting work," Robert Lanza, a stem cell researcher at Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts, told the Washington Post. "With the new work, we're only a hair's breadth away from the biggest prize in regenerative medicine -- a way to create patient-specific cells that are safe enough to use clinically."
We'll see. As the parent of a teenager with Type I diabetes, I've learned to take predictions of imminent clinical breakthroughs with several large grains of salt. The key thing about this news is the impressive multiplicity of approaches researchers have applied to the problem. And yet, even as science is finding ways to sidestep the moral and political minefield of embryonic stem cell research, advocates for using days-old human embryos will not yield. Here's the Washington Post again: "Scientists, however, while praising the work as a potentially important advance, said it remains crucial to work on both types of cells because it is far from clear which will turn out to be more useful."