Two groups of researchers have developed a breakthrough method to create stem cells that behave like embryonic stem cells -- without using embryos. The feat was accomplished by inserting four genes into ordinary skin cells. The genes are believed to have reset the cells' developmental clock to an early, embryonic-like stage.
While the discovery was welcomed by both embryonic stem cell critics and proponents alike, scientists cautioned that work on stem cells derived from embryos will need to continue. The new cells' true potential is promising, but untested. There is also the issue of safety, as one of the genes used to reprogram the skin cells is know to be associated with certain cancers.
The research teams are from Japan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
For the second time in his presidency, George Bush has vetoed a bill that would broaden federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Currently federal funds can only be used to conduct research on a very limited number of cell lines, approximately 20, created before August 9, 2001. Stem cell research is widely believed to be the most promising avenue for treating diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and Parkinson's disease.
The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 was designed to support research on stem cells which were derived from surplus embryos created in the course of fertility treatment. Conservative estimates put the number of surplus embryos in the United States at more than 400,000 and growing.
Some states have pushed ahead with state-based funding for research, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Illinois. But state-based funding is a less than ideal substitute for federal funding, both in terms of dollars invested and coordinated oversight.
President Bush's veto comes in the face of strong public support for stem cell research. An April 2007 ABC news poll found that 68% of Americans support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Researchers in Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine have identified a promising drug in the treatment of Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's is one of the most prevalent and devastating neurologic diseases worldwide, affecting more than half a million people in the United States alone, with 50,000 new cases annually.
The most promising angle of this story is that the drug identified as effective in protecing mice against Parkinson's, isradipine, is already being used in humans to treat high blood pressure and stroke. A human clinical study is the next step to validate the results found in the mouse.