Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his lab at the Oregon Health and Science University announced in the journal “Cell” that they have created human embryonic stem cells without using human embryos.. These cells can be used for various types of therapeutic cell repair without fear of transplant rejection because they will genetically identical to the patient. This could lead to important future treatments for such neurodegenerative diseases as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, ALS and Alzheimers as well as heart and liver diseases.
Dr. Mitalipov’s process for creating this cell line uses cells from tissue, such a skin, to encode the genetics of the patient and fuses it with an unfertilized human egg from a female donor. The genetic material is removed from the nucleus of the tissue cell and implanted into the egg from which the nucleus has been removed. It “tricks” the egg into acting like it has been fertilized, but material in the cytoplasm of the egg causes it to develop into a stem cell. Initially he thought it might take many eggs to achieve this result, but very few eggs were actually required. While similar procedures have been known since Dolly, the Scottish sheep, was cloned in 1996, it has taken many years to perfect the technique. It will now be possible to develop colonies of cell lines which will be able to provide a sufficient quantity of the type of cells that are required for transplantation. To prove that these stem cells can develop into a variety of cell types, including neurons and heart cells, researchers in this lab have performed many series of tests. Although this a major break-through in regenerative medicine, a lot of work still remains to develop safe and effective stem cell treatments for human patients.
Convincing the public of the efficacy of this discovery may prove difficult. Ethical issues abound. Although no previously fertilized eggs or embryos are destroyed in this process, issues remain about paying women to donate unfertilized eggs. Encouraging young and possibly poor women to commercialize products of their bodies is a serious issue. Worries that transplanted genetically engineered cells might have unintended consequences or create harmful mutations have also been expressed.
Other critics fear that this is yet another step closer to creating human clones and are pushing to halt further research until world standards banning human cloning are enacted. Mitalipov does not believe this technique will lead to human cloning. He stressed that cloning of embryos is a dangerous and delicate issue with most artificially created embryos not surviving past implantation. His technique is simply a more efficient way to create stem cells to replace damaged tissues or neurons.
Still other researchers have turned to less problematic methods of producing cell lines by using .adult cells from the patient and inducing them to become the special cells needed. However, there are questions that cells of this type may also have unintended consequences or may not achieve the results expected. Dr. Mitalipov’s lab is currently working on research to directly compare cells derived from both techniques.