Two alternatives to embryonic stem cell research

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While an appeals court has lifted a federal judge’s previously imposed injunction disallowing federally funded embryonic stem cell research to continue, scientists are making new breakthroughs in research that circumvent the use of embryonic stem cells, a highly charged moral and political field of medical research. The first batch of good news comes from a team led by Dr. Derrick J. Rossi of the Children’s Hospital Boston. His group has artificially reproduced naturally occurring biological signals that can convert ordinary skin cells into cells that act almost identically to embryonic stem cells, or pluripotent cells capable of differentiating into specific tissues used for transplantation or the treatment of various diseases.

ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross believes the new research, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, “represents hopeful progress in the use of stem cell technology.” He adds, “With targeted manipulations, this and similar technologies will one day be used to replenish and replace diseased organs and tissues — amongst many other uses — in diseased individuals.”

In another study published in this month’s Stem Cells and Development, scientists investigated the therapeutic efficacy of stem cells found in menstrual blood (MenSCs) for the treatment of brain damage caused by stroke and other central nervous system disorders. It has been shown that menstrual blood is a renewable stem cell source that also offers a non-controversial alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells. According to study investigator Dr. Cesar Borlongan, a neurologist at the University of South Florida, the retrieval of MenSCs “offers greater ease, and with a wider window of opportunity for harvest than other adult stem cells.”

“These new breakthroughs are that much better because they both bypass the concern of using embryonic stem cells — a subject fraught with controversy over some people’s belief that obtaining stem cells from embryos is morally equivalent to taking a human life,” says Dr. Ross.

ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan reminds us that these new alternatives should not supplant future research with embryonic stem cells, however. “Both avenues of research need to be pursued because the benefits of working with embryonic stem cells are still largely unknown. This area of exploration should not be cut off since it’s an important way to validate results from other types of similar cells.”