Local Researchers say Stem Cell Findings Could Change Things Dramatically

Stem cell researchers here in Houston say new findings that show skin cell in mice can be reprogrammed to mimic embyonic stem cells could revolutionize the field and possibly solve some presistant ethical issues. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, now they're waiting to see if the process could work in humans.

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Dr. Thomas Zwaka, who does research at Baylor College of Medicine's Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine, doesn't hesitate when asked what he thinks about the findings of three different teams of scientists.

"I think this study will change basically everything. It is probably as big as cloning Dolly the sheep or other major discoveries. I think it will change the entire field."

Researchers found that by introducing four important genes into the skin cells of mice, those cells were converted to look and act like embryonic stem cells, nature's most powerful building blocks. Because the process, if successful in humans, wouldn't involve the destruction of embryonic stem cells, the debate over controversial therepy involving those cells could end.

"You could make your own, these powerful cells, in your own lab. Every lab could do it, even smaller labs and since you don't really create any embryo or have to extract cells from an embryo, there's basically no ethical limit in doing this."

But Dr. Paul Simmons, who's the director of the UT-Houston Center for Stem Cell Research and president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, says the study embryonic stem cell research should not simply disappear.

"It's through the study of embryonic stem cell biology that the candidate genes that led to these studies were actually identified. If people hadn't been allowed to study embryonic stem cells this discovery would never in fact had been made. I think there's a lot to be learned therefore from embryonic stem cells."

Simmons agrees the new studies could completely change the field of stem cell research, but says researchers must now figure out if the reprogramming will work in human cells.

"It may in fact be that it's not the same four genes that would work in the human. There may be a need to search for another combination of genes in part that might be required in the human. That will be really the key step now. Is this something that only occurs in a mouse cell or will it be applicable in the human?"

On a related note, Congress has passed legislation that makes it easier to secure federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, although President Bush could end up vetoing the measure as he has before.

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