Before a packed East Room audience yesterday, President Obama signed an executive order reversing the Bush administration’s restrictions on federal funding of research that involves human embryonic stem cells. The long-expected change in policy will help U.S. researchers compete with other nations in stem cell research. Indeed, United Kingdom stem cell scientists are already voicing concerns that the U.K. may lose its place to the U.S. as the world leader of stem cell research .
The ethical and moral debate over the use of stem cells has taken center stage over the past decade. Stem cells are of great medical interest, since they have the potential to develop into almost any type of cell in the body. Regenerative medicine focuses on the potential uses of stem cells in medicine and how they can provide effective treatment for a range of diseases.
Stem cells have the capacity to divide indefinitely to replenish other cells in the body. When a stem cell divides, each daughter cell can remain a stem cell or become a more specialized cell, such as a red blood cell, a muscle cell or a nerve cell. An increasing body of evidence also suggests that molecular pathways and properties associated with normal stem cells is relevant to cancer development .
In 2004, Korean investigators lead by Woo Suk Hwang at Seoul National University announced the creation of the world’s first human embryonic stem cell line generated by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which involves the transfer of DNA, usually from a skin cell, into an egg cell that has had its DNA-containing nucleus removed. The work, published in the prominent journal Science, was retracted in 2006 amidst evidence that the researchers had falsified their data.
However, a study published online August 2nd, 2007, by the journal Cell Stem Cell reports that the Koreans unintentionally created the world’s first human embryonic stem cell derived by parthenogenesis, or virgin birth. Development is triggered spontaneously from the egg alone without the need for sperm fertilization.
Scientists at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Harvard School of Medicine report in the Journal of Nature Biotechnology that they have isolated stem cells from amniotic fluid . Further, by introducing growth factors, they were able to get the anmiotic fluid-derived stem cells to differentiate (a concept from developmental biology describing the process by which cells acquire a “type”) into muscle, fat, bone, blood vessel, liver and nerve cells.