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Two groups of scientists have just announced what is being described as a leap forward in human stem cell research.1–3 Both have found ways of producing what are being called “induced pluripotent cells” (iPCs), stem cells that they hope will demonstrate the same key properties of regeneration and unrestricted differentiation that human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) possess, but which are derived from skin cells not from embryos. In simple terms, these scientists have succeeded in reprogramming skin cells to behave like hESCs.
Stem cell research has been hailed as one of the most important and exciting areas of science, because it is believed that these types of cells will not only play an important part in regenerative medicine, but also yield valuable scientific information. These latest developments in cell reprogramming represent a milestone for stem cell science. No longer does the paradigm of irreversible cell specialisation hold true; instead, almost any type of cell might have the potential to become any other.
The advent of techniques for producing these iPCs has also been hailed as an ethical breakthrough. Up until now, the production of hESCs has required a process (unacceptable to some) which involves the destruction of embryos. Many of these embryos are available as by-products of IVF; but in addition, the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer (therapeutic cloning) to produce cloned embryonic stem cells requires a supply of human oocytes, which must currently be harvested from female donors at no insignificant cost. In a nutshell, iPCs seem to enable us to produce “embryo-free” human pluripotent stem cells, and in a “gender-neutral” way—that is, without the need for human oocytes.
The response from the scientific community, ethical commentators and the public has, however, reflected an inherent confusion over the ethical significance of this research. The anti-embryo …
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