Scientists reported Wednesday that for the first time they used cloning techniques to coax human eggs to generate embryonic stem cells containing the genes of specific patients.
The step, published in the journal Nature, marks a long-sought, potentially pivotal advance toward the goal of creating genetically matched embryonic stem cells that could be used to treat many major diseases.
The scientists so far have only managed to produce genetically abnormal cells useful for research, but they were confident they could overcome that hurdle.
“This work for the first time demonstrates that the human egg has the ability to turn a specialized cell into a stem cell,” said Dieter Egli of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, who led the research.
The research sidestepped fears that scientists had moved closer to human cloning by producing the cells with non-viable embryos. But the experiments nevertheless have raised a new set of ethical concerns in a field already rife with ethical, moral and political quagmires.
The research was possible because for the first time scientists paid women for their eggs for human embryonic stem cell research, stirring worries about women being exploited and putting their health at risk. At the same time, the researchers made the cells by producing and then destroying mutant embryos, whose moral status immediately became a matter of sharp debate.
The researchers who conducted the work and others hailed the advance as an ethically defensible, potentially highly significant advance that could lead to producing large numbers of patient-specific cells that could cure widespread suffering.
“Cell replacement therapy would dramatically change treatment and potentially even cure debilitating disease and injuries that affect millions of people suffering from these diseases,” said Susan L. Solomon, who heads the foundation. “There really is a moral imperative to alleviate suffering.”