James Thomson, Junying Yu and colleagues introduced a set of four genes into human fibroblasts; skin cells that are easy to obtain and grow in culture. This induced the cells into what scientists term as a pluripotent state: A condition that is essentially the same as that of embryonic stem cells.
Using these reprogramming techniques, the Wisconsin group has developed eight new blank slate stem cells capable of becoming any of the 220 types of cells in the human body. Some of these new cell lines have now been growing continuously in culture for as long as 22 weeks.
When perfected, the new technique would bring stem cells within easy reach of many more scientists as they could be easily made in labs of moderate sophistication, and without the ethical and legal constraints that now hamper their use by scientists.
This paper will appear in the Dec. 21, 2007 print edition of the journal Science.
UW bioethicist R. Alta Charo says that the scientific finding could have far-reaching effects on the social dimensions of the ongoing controversy over embryonic stem cell research.
"This is a method for creating a stem cell line without ever having to work through, at any stage, an entity that is a viable embryo. Therefore, you manage to avoid many of those debates with the right-to life community."