Just a week after the news came out that embryonic stem cells had been derived from a cloned primate embryo, the stem cell research scene could be experiencing another significant shift. The UK’s Daily Telegraph reported late last week that Ian Wilmut, the scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep, is dropping cloning in favor of an approach that reprograms adult cells. This “de-differentiation” method is the work of a team led by Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University. Earlier this year Yamanaka’s team, along with others at Whitehead, MIT and UCLA, announced that they had coaxed adult mouse skin cells into acting like embryonic stem cells. That’s a big deal, in large part because it bypasses having to use cloned embryos to create the cells.
Of course, what works in mice doesn’t necessarily work in people. But as mentioned in that Daily Telegraph story about Wilmut, there is now word that Yamanaka has gotten this method to work with human cells. The Kyoto team will apparently be publishing a paper this Tuesday detailing what they’ve accomplished.
If this news turns out to be true, it will almost surely have a significant effect on the ethical and political discussions surrounding stem cell research. But don’t forget about what’s pushing the research in this direction — the science itself. Wilmut told the BBC that ethics didn’t have anything to do with his team’s switch. Rather, he and others think that de-differentiation currently has a better chance of ultimately leading to therapies.