Breakthrough Reported in Stem Cell Research

Harvard (search) scientists say they have fused an adult skin cell with an embryonic stem cell in a potentially dramatic development that could lead to the creation of useful stem cells without first having to create and destroy human embryos.

Preliminary results of the groundbreaking research were disclosed Sunday evening on the Science magazine (search) web site and the Harvard researchers arranged to discuss their findings in more detail on Monday.

They said they were able to show in their early research that the fused cell "was reprogrammed to its embryonic state."

"If future experiments indicate that this reprogrammed state is retained after removing the embryonic stem cell DNA — currently a formidable technical hurdle — the hybrid cells could theoretically be used to produce embryonic stem cells lines that are tailored to individual patients without the need to create and destroy human embryos," said a summary of the research reported on the Science site.

That could lead to creation of stem cells without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process, thereby sidestepping much of the controversy over stem cell research.

The Harvard researchers used laboratory grown human embryonic stem cells — such as the ones that President Bush (search) has already approved for use by federally funded researchers — to essentially covert a skin cell into an embryonic stem cell itself.

If a number of hurdles can be overcome in subsequent research, the new technique "may circumvent some of the logistical and societal concerns" that have hampered much of the research in this country, Chad A. Cowan, Kevin Eggan and colleagues from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute report in the Science article.

The hybrid cells created by the team "had the appearance, growth rate, and several key genetic characteristics of human embryonic cells," the summary of their work said.

"They also behaved like embryonic cells, differentiating into cells from each of the three main tissue types that form in a developing embryo. The authors conclude that human embryonic cells have the ability to reprogram adult cell chromosomes following cell fusion. "