for National Geographic News
Scientists have turned an ordinary skin cell into what appears to be an embryonic stem cell. The process may eventually eliminate the controversial step of destroying human embryos for stem cell research.
The new technique involves fusing a skin cell with an existing, laboratory-grown embryonic stem cell. The fused, or hybrid, cell is "reprogrammed" to its embryonic state, Harvard University scientists report in the journal Science.
Their paper was published Sunday on the journal's Web site.
The breakthrough may one day quell the debate over stem cell research. But team member Kevin Eggan said the technology is still in early stages and is not a replacement for methods currently used to derive embryonic stem cells.
"This is just beginning of this system," he told reporters in a conference call.
Embryonic stem cells are unspecialized cells. They can grow into any type of cell found in our body.
Scientists hope embryonic stem cells can eventually be used to grow new tissue and replacement organs and to cure a range of ailments, from spinal cord injuries to Alzheimer's disease.
To study embryonic stem cells, researchers developed cell lines from stem cells, which were initially harvested from fertilized human eggs, such as those leftover from in vitro fertilization.
Because harvesting destroys the embryo, in the United States the practice has drawn the ire of many religious conservatives who regard destroying embryos as a form of murder.
The Harvard research suggests a new way to create embryonic stem cells that may one day eliminate the need to destroy fertilized human eggs.
The new type of stem cells is essentially a rejuvenated version of a person's own skin cells. A stem cell created by the new method would have DNA identical to that of the skin cell donor.
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