By Travis Reynolds

The ethical debate over stem cell research might have been put to rest.Embryonic stem cells, which can be loosely described as generic cells capable of growing into any type of cell, tissue or organ in the body, have been the subjects of intense ethical debate for some time.

Scientists hope those generic cells will eventually be used to grow entire organs for transplant or samples of afflicted tissues, such as brains with Alzheimer’s disease, for study. However, research has been hampered over the years due to the only previously known method of harvesting embryonic stem cells – taking them directly from frozen, fertilized human embryos and destroying them, according to research from the University of Wisconsin.

But now scientists have found a way to create embryonic stem cells without involving real embryos. Scientists recently have harvested stem cells from human skin.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of potential,” said Suzanne Byrd, a professor in the biology department. “If we could grow new organs, we wouldn’t have to rely on donors so heavily.”

The research has been in the works for some time. A year ago, Shinya Yamanaka, a professor at the Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences at Kyoto University in Kyoto, Japan, published a paper about creating embryonic stem cells in mice.

Yamanaka’s team used retroviruses, which act as carriers to move microscopic material to alter four chromosomes in adult skin cells, changing them into what appeared to be embryonic stem cells.

“Human embryonic stem cells might be used to treat a host of diseases,” Yamanaka said in an Aug. 2006 Cell magazine article, “such as Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury and diabetes.”

At the time, Yamanaka cited the moral dilemma of harvesting embryonic stem cells directly from embryos as a stumbling block to such research.

But a Nov. 20, 2007 article from the Gladstone Institute, a research organization associated with the University of California at San Francisco, shows just how far Yamanaka’s research has come since last year.

The Kyoto research team succeeded in genetically altering adult skin cells, changing them into human embryonic stem cells. Medical uses for these cells include changing them into cells with the capacity to grow into heart-specific bodies; in other words, stem cells could potentially be used to grow new hearts, according to the article.

More specifically, laboratory-made stem cells can be taken from a patient to create new tissues and organs with the same genetic information as the patient.

“We are now finally in a position to make patient-specific stem cells for therapies without fear of immune rejection,” Yamanaka said.

Organ donation recipients often require a steady stream of immune system suppressants to keep their bodies from destroying transplanted organs. The body sees tissues and organs with different genetic code as foreign objects – and potential threats – and will attempt to destroy them.

“I believe we are some time away from being able to go to the doctor and grow our own organs,” Byrd said. “It has a lot of potential, especially when you’re talking about (finding cures for) diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

However, Yamanaka stressed the need for further research on the subject. According to an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader, creating the stem cells includes potentially dangerous steps – including the introduction of potentially carcinogenic genes.

Byrd agreed, explaining that the retroviruses used to change skin cells into stem cells have been associated with cancer.

“It’s good to know that some progress has been made,” Byrd said.