"The technique has been out for a number of years, it?s been proven to be safe"
25 Sep, 2006 10:27 am
In a letter published in August in Nature online , Robert Lanza and his team reported a new technique to generate embryonic stem cells ?which does not interfere with the embryo's developmental potential?. In an interview  Lanza put it this way: ?what we have done for the first time is actually create human embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo itself?. The paper attracted worldwide excitement. However, it soon became clear that all 16 embryos used in the study had been destroyed. The paper is now under attack.
Michael Morris comments on this article for Scitizen.
This paper is very interesting in that it describes the removal of a single cell from an embryo containing 8-10 cells, and that single cell is then turned into an embryonic stem cell line. With low efficiency, but nevertheless, itís possible to do it.
The technique is important because a similar methodology is used to test IVF embryos for genetic makeup.
Does this technique destroy the embryonic stem cell?
No, it doesnít. Although that was not formely tested in this process, the technique used to obtain that cell is the same technique used to obtain a cell for a preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and itís been shown that when a cell is taken from an early embryo through this technique, the remaining cells can go on to form a normal embryo.
Would you say that Lanza (or Nature) hyped the results?
No I donít think so. The technique has been out for a number of years, itís been proven to be safe, and itís been proven to be useful in terms of genetic diagnosis. The only thing thatís happened here is that this single cell is now taken for a different purpose. And that different purpose is to make an embryonic stem cell line.
What is the progress in the research on adult stem cells, usually presented as more ethical?
It depends on what do you mean by progressÖIn terms of the use of adult stem cells to potentially treat a number of diseases, thereís still a long way to go, just as thereís a long way to go to use embryonic stem cells as a means to treat some of these diseases.
Research is going on with adult stem cells and with embryonic stem cells. Itís certainly not known at this stage which of those cell types, if either, would be useful for the treatment of specific diseases such as, for example, Parkinsonís disease.
After all, should scientists carry out research just to get round political restrictions?
Thereís no question that thereís an ethical issue associated with the use of embryonic stem cell lines. That ethical issue revolves around destroying a very early embryo, and many people have a moral objection to this. If itís possible to make embryonic stem cell lines without having to destroy an embryo, I think scientists and the public at large would be much happier to do it that way.
Michael Morris, thank you.
 Klimanskaya I. et al, Nature advance online publication, 23 August 2006. Read the article.
 Nature podcast, 24 August
Michael Morris is a senior research fellow at the School of Molecular and Biomediacal Science, University of Adelaide, Australia.
Interviewed by Gilles Prigent