induced pluripotent stem cells
Despite the granting of their HFEA licences two of the three research groups have been refused funding for their proposals. This is seen by some as the funding bodies making an ethical decision, choosing to fund other sources of stem cells instead.
One possible alternative is to 'reprogram' somatic cells into stem cells. This method has long been used in plant biology as a means to re-start a whole organism from any already differentiated tissue in that organism. However, in animal biology this is a very difficult process.
The cells produced by reprogramming a cell are known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells. They are developed by making a cell express transcription factors that change the cell's gene expression pattern to that of a stem cell.
The transcription factors are currently inserted into the somatic cell using retroviruses. See Wikipedia for more details. Scientists acknowledge this is not ideal as there is a possibility that it could result in an increased likelihood of tumours appearing. Further work is needed to remove any trace of these methods after insertion.
What will happen to hybrid embryo research?
As iPS cell technology becomes more successful hybrid embryos are slowly becoming less important in the lab. However, like so many discoveries, iPS cell creation techniques would not have been developed without the ground work done using hybrid embryos. We can now look back and see that they were an important turning point with bio-scientists, such as Dr Stephen Minger, communicating with the public and scientific regulation being well informed and researched. Both of these enabled a open debate on the technologies and held public engagement on an ethical issue at its core.
Should research using potentially dangerous methods go ahead? What qualifiers or assurances, if any, would you want in place?
Ethical issues in stem cell research