Researchers have discovered a breakthrough in genetic engineering that may also offer scientists a new, less controversial source of viable human stem cells.

In case you’ve been living under a poorly furnished rock for the last 15 years, stem cells are cells within the human body with the unique capability to grow into any other cell. Given the implications presented by stem cell technology and its ability to renew otherwise finite limits of cells found in crucial organs (such as the brain and the heart), you can imagine its uses.

The problem however, is that most current sources of stem cells come from unborn fetuses. Conservatives and the religious set see the harvesting of these cells as abortion (if only by proxy).

A recently published study conducted by a team at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, has seemingly discovered a new source for these valuable cells: Once diseased cells that science is now able to repair through the magic of genetic alteration.

From the New Scientist write up:

Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and his colleagues in the US and Europe harvested fibroblast cells from the skin of patients with the bone marrow disease Fanconi anaemia, then used standard gene-therapy viruses to replace the defective genes with normal ones.

The researchers then used a second virus to “reset” the cells to their embryonic condition. These induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, are capable of differentiating into any of the tissues of the body. Indeed, the researchers showed that given the right stimuli, their iPS cells differentiated into disease-free progenitors of bone marrow stem cells.

The new discovery is far from perfect though. Belmonte admits that the newly repaired cells are “prone to become cancerous,” but claims his team of lab coat ninjas are working hard to amend this glaring issue.

On the other hand, this breakthrough is a huge boon for medical science. Otherwise fatal brain damage could be mended, genetic diseases could be both combated and cured, and stereotypical mad scientists everywhere would finally have something to replace Pu-240 on their Christmas lists.


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