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Saturday 22nd October 2016

Stem cells without destroying embryos

5th December 2007

The Economist examines how to make human embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos.


When it emerged that researchers had created embryonic stem cells in monkeys using the somatic-cell nuclear transfer technique which takes the nucleus from a body cell and puts it in an unfertilised egg, it made big news.

A second way of making an embryonic stem cell that has the genes of an existing individual is to take a body cell and order it to turn into a stem cell using a set of molecular instructions.

More recently, Dr Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and by Junying Yu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have revealed how to do the trick in human cells.

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to replace worn-out tissues and organs with no danger of rejection, though making them using somatic-cell nuclear transfer involves breaking up viable embryos, and that offends some people.

Drs Yamanaka and Yu may have a solution. Instead of starting with human embryos, they started with human body cells and a process where specialised cells are ordered to change back into stem cells. Dr Yamanaka’s team persuaded its stem cells to turn into nerve cells and heart cells.

However, against them is the way they persuade their experimental cells to churn out the appropriate transcription factors, by infecting them with retroviruses that have had the four relevant genes spliced into their genomes.

Transplanting tissues created this way into people would be too risky, though a modified approach that does not involve viruses could be the ultimate way of making human stem cells.

And no embryo need be destroyed.


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