New York Scientists have created the equivalent of embryonic stem cells from ordinary skin cells, a breakthrough that could someday produce new treatments for disease without the explosive moral questions of embryo cloning.
Research teams in the United States and Japan showed that a simple lab technique can rival the complex and highly controversial idea of extracting stem cells from cloned embryos.
It was a landmark achievement on all fronts, defusing one of the most divisive debates in modern medicine and religion. It was lauded by scientists, ethicists and religious groups.
"This work represents a tremendous scientific milestone - the biological equivalent of the Wright Brothers' first airplane," said Dr. Robert Lanza, whose company, Advanced Cell Technology, has been trying to extract stem cells from cloned human embryos.
"It redefines the ethical terrain," said Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University.
"It's a win-win for everyone involved," said the Rev. Thomas Berg of the Westchester Institute, a Roman Catholic think tank. "We have a way to move forward which ... brings the kind of painful national debate over this controversial research to very much a peaceful and promising resolution."
At the White House, President Bush, who vetoed two bills to allow federal funding for stem-cell research, was described as "very pleased."
"The president believes medical problems can be solved without compromising either the high aims of science or the sanctity of human life," said a statement from his press secretary.
The new technique reprograms cells, giving them the chameleon-like qualities of embryonic stem cells, which can morph into all kinds of tissue, such as heart, nerve and brain. As with embryonic cells, the hope is to speed medical research. For example, one day an ailing patient might benefit from genetically matched healthy tissue that would replace damaged cells.
The research was published online Tuesday by two journals, Cell and Science. The Cell paper is from a team led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University; the team published by Science was led by Junying Yu, working in the lab of stem-cell pioneer James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Both groups reported that the reprogrammed cells behaved like stem cells in a series of lab tests. Their papers ended a scientific race that broke into wide view just this summer, when the achievement was reported in mice.
The scientists themselves were startled by their success.
"I was surprised when we achieved our results with the mouse," Yamanaka said. "But proving what we could do with human cells really bowled me over."
Thomson said he was surprised it didn't take longer to discover how to reprogram ordinary cells. The technique, he said, is so simple that "thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow."
In contrast, the cloning approach is so complex and expensive that many scientists say it couldn't be used routinely to supply stem cells for therapy.
Thomson he said his team wasn't trying to find a way around the ethical debate by pursuing the new technique. "We just thought this was a more practical approach," he said.