A US team of scientists from the Oregon Health & Science University and the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC) have used a human skin cell to create a cloned human stem cell which is genetically identical to the person who donated the skin cell.
The team took a donated egg and removed the nucleus of the egg cell. They then took the nucleus out of the patient’s skin cell (which contains the patient’s DNA) and put it into the ‘hollow’ egg. This makes the egg think that it has been fertalised, causing it to start dividing into stem cells.
Labelled ‘The Starbucks experiment’, the team successfully used electricity and caffeine to protect parts of the cell from activating prematurely.
Until now, scientists have only been able to grow human embryonic stem cells from IVF embryos which are not a genetic match with the recipient as they contain genetic material from both a sperm and an egg. There is therefore a risk that the cells will be rejected by the patient’s body. Researchers are also concerned that these cells may generate mutations once transplanted.
Many medical researchers believe that stem cell therapy is the treatment which, with more research, could treat and cure conditions ranging from spinal cord injuries to Parkinson’s disease.
Lead scientist, Dr. Mitalipov, explained that the stem cells his team produced were able to convert themselves “into several different cell types, including nerve cells, liver cells and heart cells,” just like normal stem cells.
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Whenever the words ‘stem cells’ are used, ethical and controversial concerns may follow. For those who don’t know, current therapeutic cloning of stem cells involves the production, and then destruction, of a human embryo. Many see the process as unnatural, although I see it as advancement in medical science. With this new discovery, an egg is used to create the stem cells, but it is never fertilised. No embryo is created in the process, so does this resolve the ethical controversy around stem cell research?
Once the stem cells are produced, they can be changed into any kind of cell (brain, nerve, heart, etc.) to potentially treat any injury or sickness in a patient. Dr. Mitalipov also noted in his study that once an individual has gone through the process of having the customised stem cells created, the stem cells have an unlimited capacity to keep growing. This means that the cells can be frozen and utilised whenever the individual is injured or sick.
I am excited for a future where stem cells can improve our quality of life, where many diseases which are currently incurable can be treated during a visit to the doctor and especially for a future where spinal cord injury sufferers can walk again.
What do you think? Is the process of growing stem cells ethically wrong? Does this new technique change anything? And would those questioning the science have a different view if they became a paraplegic?