In a recent stem cell break through, skin cells have become “grandparents” of fertile baby mice. The original skin cells were reprogrammed into stem cells, which were developed into eggs by researchers in Japan. The eggs were then viably fertilized, signaling hope for infertile couples.
Last year, in Kyoto, scientists were able to create viable sperm from stem cells as well. For an infertile individual, using one’s own cells to create fertile eggs or sperm would allow a second chance at pregnancy. Until scientists are able to reproduce such successes in human cells, however, there is no promise that this will work with humans.
The created sperm and egg cells still carry 100% of the parent DNA, meaning the offspring are still biologically related in the same way as a regular pregnancy. Each cell in our body carries the same set of DNA; whether a cell differentiates into a blood cell, skin or liver cell, etc. is determined by which genes it was instructed to turn on or off. This “instruction” has inspired much debate and investigation; scientists have made incredible progress in determining the power of a cell’s position and other chemical determinants in creating its final fate. Scientists now have the capability to chemically revert a skin cell into a stem cell, leaving the genome open to be manipulated.
In addition to fertility, such progress holds incredible hope for disease treatment and prevention, as well as organ regeneration. This summer, scientists at Johns Hopkins were able to take a Huntington’s disease patient’s skin cells, revert them to stem cells, reprogram them into brain neurons that demonstrated the same Huntington’s degeneration, allowing them to study how the neurons were affected by the disease. Having real human, diseased cells available for experimentation allow scientists to better understand the pathway of a disease and how it affects the cells, how it could potentially be prevented and how those cells respond to new treatments. These “diseases in a dish” hold the potential for critical breakthroughs.
Such progress, however, is frustratingly halted by the ethical debate over stem cell manipulation. The break troughs made in the past year alone since the Obama administration lifted the ban on federal funding for stem cell research are incredible — it is a shame to think of what we’d missed out on previously (while research wasn’t halted by the lack of federal funding, it was surely stunted). With the progress of turning a skin cells into stem cells, the reliance on embryos is somewhat mitigated, however, the debate is not fully over. Embryos still serve as a rich source of younger stem cells that potentially have more hopeful futures than the older, previously differentiated cells. Most embryos studied are obtained from fertility clinics, embryos that would have been discarded otherwise. Those that argue against using embryonic stem cells still feel that this is a violation of potential life.
Current research suggests we are on the horizon of some incredible break troughs. I hope we are able to move past the archaic ethical debate by focusing on the thousands of lives that could potentially be saved. The ability to regenerate organs, for example, opens the possibility of saving those waiting for a transplant by creating an organ that matches exact DNA, decreasing the wait for transplants and increasing the changes of the body recognizing it as "self" as well.
The potentials are truly exciting, from organ growth to disease treatment and infertility. While such technology still has a way to go, I greatly appreciate the hard work by those in the field and trust that their current progress signals hope.