stem cells

For the first time ever, scientists in the US have turned human skin cells into early-stage embryos, which were then used to create specialised tissue cells for transplant operations.

The results of the scientific breakthrough, which used similar human cloning techniques used to create Dolly the sheep 16 years ago, were published in the journal Cell today.

Unlike Dolly, the scientists destroyed the human embryos after their stem cells were extracted.

The study could possibly lead to new tissue-transplant operations for a range of devastating disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and spinal cord injuries.

"It was thought that to make [it] work many thousands of human eggs would be needed. We were able to produce one embryonic stem cell line using just two human eggs which would make this approach practical for widespread therapeutic use," The Independent reported Dr Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who led the research team at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, as saying.

"Our finding offers new ways of generating stem cells for patients with dysfunctional or damaged tissues or organs. Such stem cells can regenerate and replace those damaged cells and tissues and alleviate diseases that affect millions of people," Mitalipov added.

Scientists have stressed that their work is designed solely to produce replacement tissue for transplant operations from a patient’s own skin cells.

However, as with the cloning of Dolly, this latest research will raise serious ethical concerns over the creation of human embryos for medical purposes and the potential use of the same technique to produce IVF embryos for couples wanting cloned babies, a practise which is currently illegal in the UK.

This procedure has been achieved in laboratory animals, but until now never in human material.

However, according to the BBC, some researchers say other sources of stem cells may be easier, cheaper and less controversial. Other stem cell trials are currently underway.

Image: Diseases and conditions where stem cell treatment is promising or emerging. Photo: Courtesy of Mikael Häggström.