Scientist who created Dolly says stem cells from skin fragments now the way to go

The scientist who created Dolly the sheep says he is abandoning the cloning of human embryos in stem cell research.

Dolly the sheep was unveiled to the world in 1997 but creator Professor Ian Wilmut, of Edinburgh University, says he now believes a method developed in Japan which creates stem cells from fragments of skin may be the way to go.

Professor Wilmut was awarded a licence to clone human embryos just two years ago but has now abandoned that line of research.

The new method could remove the need to use human embryos which will appease the many pro-life groups who oppose to the use of embryonic cells.

Professor Wilmut says the decision to change methods was not based on ethics but because the Japanese research which uses a technique to change cells from a patient directly into stem cells without making an embryo has so much more potential.

Professor Wilmut says for him it has always been ethically acceptable to use cells from a human embryo to develop a treatment for a disease like motor neurone disease, for which there is no current treatment.

Embryonic or stem cells are widely regarded as the body's building blocks as they are the most flexible cells in the body and have the potential to grow into any cell in the human body.

Professor Wilmut says the new process is 'easier to accept socially' than the therapeutic cloning process he helped pioneer.

Professor Wilmut developed a cloning technique which involved creating stem cells from human embryos but has now embraced a technique developed by Professor Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, Japan.

The research which has been conducted on mice involves genetically modifying adult cells to make them almost as flexible as stem cells.

The research is due to be published this week and Wilmut says he and his team agree that the Japanese method has more potential than the use of embryonic cells.

Although the aim is to grow replacement tissue as body parts become worn out it will be some time before that will happen as at present the resulting cells from the method are unstable and potentially cancerous.

However the researchers believe that within five years the new technique could provide a better and ethically more acceptable alternative to cloning embryos for medical research.

Wilmut's decision to abandon cloning has shocked the scientific world as many believe such methods are the only way to provide groundbreaking treatments for serious medical conditions such as stroke, heart disease and Parkinson's disease.

However though the birth of Dolly raised the hopes of possible treatments or cures for a range of serious medical conditions, it also ignited an intense and heated ethical debate between the scientific community, pro-life campaigners and religious groups.

U.S. president George Bush has forbidden the spending of public money on such research.

Last year, Professor Wilmut himself expressed his disappointment that the vast potential of cloning had not been fully realised and plans for therapeutic cloning to provide genetically-matched human tissue for patients have been non-starters.

Research on mice has seen Professor Yamanaka create stem cells from fragments of skin and there is a suspicion in the scientific community that he has now done the same with human cells.

It is thought that the pioneering technique could lead the way to scientists harvesting a patient's own cells and then using them to repair damage caused by disease.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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