US researchers have reported a breakthrough in stem cell research, describing how they have turned human skin cells into embyronic stem cells for the first time.
The method described by Oregon State University scientists in the journal Cell, would not likely be able to create human clones, said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, senior scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Centre.
But it is an important step in research because it does not require the use of embryos in creating the type of stem cell capable of transforming into any other type of cell in the body.
The technique involves transplanting an individual's DNA into an egg cell that has been stripped of genetic material, a variation of a method called somatic cell nuclear transfer.
"A thorough examination of the stem cells derived through this technique demonstrated their ability to convert just like normal embryonic stem cells, into several different cell types, including nerve cells, liver cells and heart cells," said Mitalipov.
He added that since the reprogrammed cells use genetic material from the patient, there is no concern about transplant rejection.
"While there is much work to be done in developing safe and effective stem cell treatments, we believe this is a significant step forward in developing the cells that could be used in regenerative medicine," Mitalipov said.
Years of research on monkey cells using the same technique have not successfully produced any monkey clones.
Since the human cells used in the study appeared even more fragile, researchers said it was unlikely clones could be made.
"While nuclear transfer breakthroughs often lead to a public discussion about the ethics of human cloning, this is not our focus, nor do we believe our findings might be used by others to advance the possibility of human reproductive cloning," they said.
Scientists hope stem cell research will offer new pathways in the fight against Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and blindness.