A breakthrough in stem cell research has again raised the specter of human cloning. The discovery by a team at Oregon Health and Science University moves the world incrementally closer to that result, but its more immediate effect will be to spur efforts to regenerate healthy tissue for the injured and the ailing. Although it's reasonable to worry about where such a discovery may lead, those concerns shouldn't stop researchers from exploring the restorative properties of stem cells.
The promise of stem cells is that they can develop into many different kinds of tissues rather than being locked into a specific cellular fate. Researchers are using them to replicate and study diseased cells, and a few therapies involving stem cells are already in limited use.
The team at OHSU, which disclosed its work in a paper published online by Cell, created embryonic stem cells by replacing the nucleus in an unfertilized human egg with the nucleus from a skin cell, then harvesting the resulting stem cells. This long-sought technique may eventually let doctors create replacement cells for a wide variety of tissues from bits of a patient's own skin.
One advantage to this approach is that, unlike much of the initial work on stem cells, it doesn't require the destruction of human embryos. That practice drew fierce opposition from some religious leaders and right-to-life groups, although their criticism has faded as researchers switched to adult stem cells and, more recently, regular cells reprogrammed into stem cells through genetic engineering.