Ian Wilmut, who helped clone Dolly the sheep, says researchers should get out of embryonic stem cell research -– which is plagued with tumors -- and pursue more promising, less problematic research.
LA JOLLA, Calif. (BP) -- The scientist who led the team that cloned Dolly the sheep has urged fellow researchers to forego embryonic stem cell research -- which he says is fraught with practical problems -- and pursue more promising types of research.
That's because he believes other research likely will overtake embryonic stem cell research.
Ian Wilmut spoke to a crowd of stem cell researchers Nov. 29 in La Jolla, Calif., telling them that because embryonic stem cells tend to lead to tumors, scientists should spend their time on non-embryonic forms of research, particularly on a new method called direct reprogramming. In direct reprogramming, scientists avoid stem cells altogether and, for instance, reprogram a skin cell directly into a nerve cell. Researchers have had success doing just that with lab mice. It has the support of ethicists who have opposed embryonic research.
"I'm not quite sure why this hasn't been pursued more actively," said Wilmut, who led the team that cloned Dolly the sheep in the 1990s.
Wilmut's speech was reported by the North County Times (Escondido, Calif.), which paraphrased him as saying direct reprogramming would provide the benefits of embryonic stem cell research without the risks. The government, he added, likely won't spend money on embryonic research if a safer method is available.
If successful, direct reprogramming would turn the political and ethical debate upside down, making moot discussions over which types of stem cells are most promising. Wilmut was speaking in the same state where California voters in 2004 approved a 10-year, $3 billion investment into embryonic stem cell research. No cures have been found.
With embryonic stem cell research, scientists try to take stem cells from embryos and turn them into specific cells for the body. The process is opposed by pro-lifers because it destroys the embryo. In direct programming, scientists -- in theory -- would take a skin cell and simply reprogram it into, say, a nerve cell, without involving either embryos or stem cells of any kind.
In the results of one mice lab experiment released in 2010, fibroblast cells -- found in connective tissue -- were reprogrammed into nerve cells.
David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, called direct programming a "booming area where you might say they cut out the middle man." Even induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, long championed by pro-lifers, can cause tumors, Prentice said. In iPS research, scientists change an adult stem into embryo-like stem cells.
"iPS cells are ethically OK, but because they act like an embryonic stem cell, frankly are still not safe," Prentice said. "Wilmut is saying there is an even better way that gets around the ethical problems but also bypasses much of the safety issues." Read More