CNS STORY: New stem-cell method offers another alternative …

New stem-cell method offers another alternative to embryonic research

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien Catholic News Service

BALTIMORE (CNS) -- A new method of creating versatile stem cells from a relatively simple manipulation of existing cells could further reduce the need for any stem-cell research involving human embryos, according to leading ethicists.

Although the process has only been tested in mice, two studies published Jan. 29 in the journal Nature detailed research showing success with a process called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP.

Scientists from Japan's RIKEN research institute and Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston were able to reprogram blood cells from newborn mice by placing them in a low-level acidic bath for 30 minutes. Seven to 9 percent of the cells subjected to such stress returned to a state of pluripotency and were able to grow into other types of cells in the body.

"If this technology proves feasible with human cells, which seems likely, it will offer yet another alternative for obtaining highly flexible stem cells without relying on the destructive use of human embryos," said Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. "This is clearly a positive direction for scientific research."

Father Pacholczyk, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., who holds a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale University, said the only "potential future ethical issue" raised by the new STAP cells would be if scientists were to coax them into "a new degree of flexibility beyond classical pluripotency," creating cells "with essential characteristics of embryos and the propensity to develop into the adult organism."

"Generating human embryos in the laboratory, regardless of the specific methodology, will always raise significant ethical red flags," he said.

The Catholic Church opposes any research involving the destruction of human embryos to create stem cells.

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said if the new method were used to create stem cells so versatile that they could form placenta tissue and make human cloning easier, "then we would have serious moral problems with that." But there is no indication so far that the scientists could or would do so, he added.

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