Is the great stem cell debate over?

It’s a sign of the times. Ten years ago, the single most controversial issue in bioethics was probably the use of human embryonic stem cells. Since these can only be obtained by destroying human embryos, nearly every Western legislature had noisy and bitter debates. But all that died away soon after Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka developed induced pluripotent stem cells, which apparently have all the potential of embryonic cells without the ethical baggage. (He was later awarded a Nobel Prize.)

Now a paper in Nature Biotechnology has suggested that iPS cells and hES cells are really functionally equivalent – meaning that there is no need to destroy embryos either for research or for therapies. Yet a report on the discovery in Science has attracted not a single comment. Whether or not the findings of Konrad Hochedlinger and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston are correct, it seems that the debate is over.

"When using these cell lines and assays, and after considering a number of technical and biological variables, we find that ES cells and iPS cells are equivalent," said Hochedlinger, adding the caveat that not all practical applications can account for the variables, and that in his view the science has not yet advanced to where iPS cells can replace embryonic stem cells in every situation.

"Embryonic stem cells are still an important reference point, against which other pluripotent cells are compared," said Hochedlinger. "Along those lines, this study increases the 'value' of iPS cells."

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | stem cell ethics, stem cells

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